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ENVIRONMENT REPORT - July 27, 2001: Carbon Dioxide - 2001-07-31

This is the VOA Special English Environment Report.

Carbon dioxide makes up less than one percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. But the gas is very important to life on Earth. Scientists are finding that processes involving carbon dioxide affect our climate in ways that are difficult to understand.

Last month, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington released a report. It confirmed that world temperatures increased about six-tenths of a degree Celsius in the last one-hundred years. The report also confirmed evidence that the level of carbon dioxide is increasing.

The best information about climate in the past comes from tests of ice many kilometers deep in Antarctica and Greenland. The tests show changes in temperature during the past four-hundred-thousand years. These tests show that levels of carbon dioxide today are the highest ever measured. These findings have led scientists to believe that carbon dioxide is a major cause of climate warming.

Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fuel is burned. Oil, coal and wood are all fuels that release the gas. When biological waste breaks down, it also releases carbon dioxide.

However, plants use carbon dioxide in the process called photosynthesis. This process provides food for almost all life on Earth. Some groups that support burning oil and coal want to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They oppose international efforts to control carbon dioxide.

Some scientists believe that forests and trees are able to capture large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air. Some groups even suggest that an increase in carbon dioxide could cause plants to grow faster.

A recent study in North Carolina found that more carbon dioxide in the air can cause trees to grow faster. But the researchers found the effect appears to last for only three years. Another study showed that much of the carbon dioxide that is taken in by trees is released within three years. The study noted that leaves release carbon dioxide when they fall from trees and break down in the soil. Plants also naturally release carbon dioxide through the process of respiration.

The natural balance of gases in the atmosphere is a complex scientific issue. The debate over carbon dioxide is only one part of efforts to understand world climate change.

This VOA Special English ENVIRONMENT REPORT was written by Mario Ritter.