Climate change mitigation with plant science

Did you ever wonder how plants can reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases? How plants can mitigate the effects of climate change?

Accumulation of huge amounts of carbon dioxide is one of the biggest reasons contributing to changing climatic conditions! Plants are one of the sources that can absorb this carbon dioxide from the environment through photosynthesis. However, we are producing way more greenhouse gases that it's not possible for plants to keep up.

In today's day and age, this is one big threat we are facing globally: climate change! For many decades, there have been shifts in weather patterns which is showing a negative influence on all our lives. A simple Google search can show you how drastically weather conditions have changed in your location. And if this wasn't enough, we have been experiencing a global pandemic due to COVID-19 as well.

Imagine a day, if there is another virus infecting crops globally! Then there might be a huge possibility of famines and starvation worldwide. Hence there is an urgent need to fast-track research in different sectors, be it innovative engineering, plant science, animal science, etc., and find long-term solutions to prevent such incidences from becoming the 'new normal'.

But let's come back to our current concern of changing climate. Farmers globally are facing constant challenges to grow safe and nutritious foods sustainably. They not only need to adjust to changing climate conditions, but also work to preserve biodiversity and the environment. On the other hand, side effects of changing climate are becoming grave with the increased use of fossil fuels. Therefore, according to scientists, we need to develop technologies and create innovative solutions in the coming few years. Solutions which not only reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, but also remove already present excessive amount of these harmful gases.

What is the 'greenhouse effect'?

There are certain gases in our environment which work by trapping heat and warm the planet. This phenomenon is known as the 'greenhouse effect'. The gases which are mainly responsible for this effect are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor. These gases are naturally present in the atmosphere, however, human activities have been adding up huge amounts of these gases in the atmosphere. This has aggravated the greenhouse effect and we can observe the consequences of changes in climate patterns.

What are the solutions using plant science?

We can't change the current weather conditions, however, as plant enthusiasts, we can learn better how the plant system works. When we know how plants adapt to changing environmental conditions, we can further research ways to develop crops meeting desirable traits.

Developing crops that are more resilient to rapidly changing and harsher environments will be crucial for tomorrow’s food production. We need to plan systems to maintain high food productivity while preserving the earth’s valuable ecosystems. In addition, plants may also play an important role in mitigating the rising levels of greenhouse gases. Although climate change mitigation is only achievable with a combination of different solutions from different areas and not just plant science. Researchers are working on developing materials and technology that could replace/minimize plastic use, reduce carbon footprint and minimize other factors contributing to climate change.

Let us now look at possible solutions that different areas of plant science can offer:

Breeding crops tolerant to biotic and abiotic stresses

There is a need to identify ways to adapt agriculture to climate change, as it threatens our food production. This means making plants more resilient to drought and high temperatures – and beyond. For instance, in the next few decades, it will become more and more important not only to reduce emissions, but to remove them from our atmosphere. We can improve plants' carbon-capturing ability by engineering or selecting trees and crops with the right traits.

Rainfall patterns are not the same anymore. Plants are showing less resistance to diseases and pests. This change is creating pressure on plants for survival. Hence, breeding industries and breeders are working on developing new resistant varieties as well as climate-resilient varieties.

Adoption of these climate-resilient crops, for example, early-maturing maize, heat-tolerant wheat, drought-tolerant legumes or tuber crops, varieties with enhanced salinity tolerance, or rice with submergence tolerance, all can help farmers to better cope with climate shocks.

Interestingly, plant tissue culture can play a prominent role in breeding such crops. It can facilitate the development of different generations of uniform plants in order to select and cross plants with desirable traits. This can significantly reduce the duration of breeding a tolerant variety.

And if you are new to plant tissue culture, then look at our blog post on "Plant tissue culture: a short overview".

Innovations for food security

Another major impact of climate change is the unavailability of food or we can call it food insecurity. Because of extreme environments, there is less production of fruits, cereals, and so on. There is not enough produce to export and import to and from different countries. This lack is creating pressure on the economies as well as on the available agricultural land, especially in developing countries. However, this is not the whole picture! There is another big issue: food wastage. It has been estimated that over a third of food produced globally is wasted. Food wastage alone is causing 10% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Hence solutions to reduce food wastage will also put less pressure on producing more food. Recently, researchers have developed long-term storage systems to prevent fruit spoilage for up to 12 months. There have been developments in supermarket packaging that delay greening and ripening of potatoes and all sorts of fruits. Apart from these, there are several investigations going on to develop technologies where wasted and spoiled food can transform into a bioenergy source.


John Innes Centre scientists have developed a new fast-growing broccoli that no longer relies on a period of cold weather to flower, and goes from seed to harvest in only 8-10 weeks!

Plants that facilitate reforestation

Deforestation has been a huge problem for the environment for a long time. We are losing forests not just by deforestation, but also because of wildfires, pest outbreaks, etc. In 2020, Australia's wildfires have destroyed more than a fifth of the country's forests! This happened because high temperatures led to drier vegetation and pulled moisture from the land, thus leading to fires. We need living trees to absorb and store carbon dioxide. They can provide protection against calamities like hillslides during heavy rainfalls, wildfires, etc. Trees can provide clean air, filter water and even recover damaged soil, thereby, bringing nature more in balance.

There are extensive reforestation plans being implemented around the world. The United Nations and several other NGOs are playing a crucial role in this. For instance, the UN is working towards increasing forest area with 3% worldwide by 2030, which will increase the forest area with 120 million hectares. This is an area over twice the size of France!

Plant tissue culture is also being used for producing reforestation seedlings at a faster rate. 

Plants that help produce renewable energy

To reduce the impact of climate change, there is a requirement for a drastic decrease in energy use, a diverse mix of renewable energy sources, and negative emission technologies. According to researchers from UKRI, sustainably produced biomass, either waste from forest management or from purpose-grown energy crops is a source of low carbon energy. Hence, certain plants can serve as a renewable energy source.

If these energy crops are combined with the right kind of technologies to capture and store carbon, then it can be a negative emission technology.

There is extensive research and breeding going on to develop biomass energy crops. Recently, UK researchers have bred new fast-growing hybrids of the biomass crop 'Miscanthus'. This will help growers to scale up production for biomass energy production needs.

So these are some of the ways by which plant science plays a role in combating climate change along with other technologies. The ongoing global research and innovation work in this direction will develop more insightful solutions in the near future!

In coming blog posts we will describe in more detail how specific plant tissue culture techniques can specifically support combating climate change with some practical examples.

We hope it will be resourceful for many readers. For more interesting articles, keep checking our space!

By Nancy Bhatia | 16-June-2021