Reforesting and managing ecosystems have been proposed as ways to mitigate global warming and offset anthropogenic carbon emissions. The intent of our opinion piece is to provide a perspective on how well plants and ecosystems sequester carbon. The ability of individual plants and ecosystems to mine carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as defined by rates and cumulative amounts, are limited by laws of physics and ecological principles. Consequently, the rates and amount of net carbon uptake are slow and low compared to the rates and amounts of carbon dioxide we release by fossil fuels combustion. Managing ecosystems to sequester carbon can also cause unintended consequences to arise.
In this paper, we articulate a series of key take‐home points. First, the potential amount of carbon an ecosystem can assimilate on an annual basis scales with absorbed sunlight, which varies with latitude, leaf area index and available water. Second, efforts to improve photosynthesis will come with the cost of more respiration. Third, the rates and amount of net carbon uptake are relatively slow and low, compared to the rates and amounts and rates of carbon dioxide we release by fossil fuels combustion. Fourth, huge amounts of land area for ecosystems will be needed to be an effective carbon sink to mitigate anthropogenic carbon emissions. Fifth, the effectiveness of using this land as a carbon sink will depend on its ability to remain as a permanent carbon sink. Sixth, converting land to forests or wetlands may have unintended costs that warm the local climate, such a changing albedo, increasing surface roughness or releasing other greenhouse gases.
We based our analysis on 1163 site‐years of direct eddy covariance measurements of gross and net carbon fluxes from 155 sites across the globe.