Impacts of air pollution on productivity of natural and cultivated tropical C4 grasses: implications in the face of land use change in Brazil

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography


In the lower atmosphere ozone (O3) is an important anthropogenic greenhouse gas and is an air pollutant responsible for several billion pounds in lost plant productivity each year. Surface O3 has doubled since 1850 due to chemical emissions from vehicles, industrial processes, and the burning of forests. Tropical ecosystems are responsible for nearly half of global plant productivity and it is in these tropical regions that we are likely to see the greatest expansion of human populations this century. Alongside this growing population, we see the expansion of O3 precursor emissions from urbanization and high-intensity agricultural areas.

Sugarcane is an important tropical and bioenergy crop, supplying raw material for sugar, ethanol (biofuel) and energy production and contributes to the bioeconomy of both São Paulo state (SP) and Brazil. While the São Paulo state is responsible for over half of Brazilian sugarcane production, sugarcane-derived products account for 17% of the Brazilian energy matrix. In a global context, biofuel production is one major land-based carbon-neutral approach to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and thus help society to achieve the challenging Paris accord of limiting climate change to below 2oC.

Over the two last decades, SP state has experienced large-scale conversion of pasture (natural C4 grass) to sugarcane fields. At the same time air quality measurements demonstrate O3 concentrations across much of SP above those known to be harmful to plants.

This project will make the first comprehensive set of measurements of O3 effects on plant functioning and growth in tropical grasses, both cultivated (e.g. sugarcane) and natural (e.g. used as pasture) using our unique tropical experimental facility in Cairns, Australia. Here we expose tropical grasses to different levels of ozone, to derive relationships between O3 dose and productivity loss. In addition, we investigate the role of drought on the O3 sensitivity of tropical grasses.

Finally, we will use this information to assess the impact of regional O3 concentrations and changing land-cover (from natural C4 pasture to sugarcane) for southern Brazil and engage with relevant stakeholders from both policy and academia.


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