My simplistic model for the carbon cycle was that plants (or trees in particular) photosynthesise and transpire. The former takes up $\small\mathsf{CO_2}$ and $\small\mathsf{H_2O}$ and the latter does the reverse but obviously not netting out. The carbon for the cellular material (in particular wood) comes entirely from atmospheric $\small\mathsf{CO_2}$ (?).

The mass of trees comes mainly from cellulose which is roughly 50% carbon. Therefore the mass of sequestered $\small\mathsf{CO_2}$ is simply related to the mass of trees, with the proportion equal to the ratio of the molecular masses of cellulose and $\small\mathsf{CO_2}$ with balanced carbon content. Wiki says cellulose is some sort of sugar type thing $\small\mathsf{(C_6H_{10}O_5)n}$ and carbon dioxide is obviously $\small\mathsf{CO_2}$ so the ratio is something like: for each kilo of tree/wood grows 1.62 kg of $\small\mathsf{CO_2}$ is sequestered?

Is this completely wide of the mark?

  • $\begingroup$ For a given species of tree or plant, then yes, the mass of sequestered CO2 should be roughly proportional to the mass of the tree. I think there's some variation between species. $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2019 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ A lot of the mass of a living plant is actually water, and that's going to vary a lot between species, and even different parts of the tree. (Consider the weight difference between green wood and seasoned firewood, for instance.) But if you can get dry weight, then I think it should be close. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Aug 2, 2019 at 17:46

2 Answers 2


Simple answer: No. The process "carbon sequestration" considers the whole Earth system holistically (otherwise it would not serve its purpose), and in your case, you only look at the plant-atmosphere system so nothing can be said of the amount of carbon sequestered.

What you are describing is more close to Net Primary Production, which is defined as carbon fixation from photosynthesis minus carbon released from autotrophic respiration (which is somewhat different from transpiration that you mentioned).

Carbon sequestration refers to the transfer of atmospheric carbon into a relatively stable pool of carbon (on a climate-relevant time scale, usually at least in decadal-scale). "New growth" implies all the biomass gains of the tree over time, not necessarily "stable" biomass only. One obvious case arises for deciduous trees where large portion of "gained" leaves fall and decompose relatively rapidly.


Plants and trees both do the same thing: they take CO2 from the atmosphere and water from the soil and using the energy of the sun via photosynthesis they create glucose with it. The glucose is then converted into cellulose. I was puzzled by your remark that one of the two, either trees or plants, does the opposite. It doesn't. Although trees pay a large part in removing CO2 from the atmosphere, it's easy to overemphasise their role. Other plants also play a large part, especially in peat bogs, but what few people seem to realise is that photosynthetic marine organisms such as cyanobacteria, phytoplankton, blue-green algae, seaweed and and sea grass etc absorb more CO2 than all the worlds rainforests. How much this all adds up to in terms of tons of CO2 per year removed from the atmosphere is impossible to estimate, especially as in some cases (wood burning and food consumption, for example) the CO2 is soon given back to the atmosphere, while in peat bogs it is removed for good.

  • $\begingroup$ Michael, Thanks for the reply. Sorry if I puzzled you through poor expression. I was just trying to say that plants take in CO2 & H2O to make glucose. They also do the reverse in breathing/transpiration: burn glucose to make CO2 and H2O. But the net cannot be zero, if for no other reason, then they need carbon to grow. If the only way they can obtain carbon is photosynthesis then there should be a simple relation between the net CO2 absorbtion and the amount of carbon used in growth. Is that true or have I missed something? I am only looking at the case where the plant is stil living. $\endgroup$
    – Tom Weston
    Aug 1, 2019 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think you have missed anything important, you seem to understand the general principles of what's going on. $\endgroup$ Aug 1, 2019 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ According to Carbon cycle, Wikipedia net terrestrial uptake is 3 GT (Carbon), oceans 2 GT. $\endgroup$ Aug 13, 2019 at 2:53
  • $\begingroup$ CO2 is not "in peat bogs .... removed for good". Boglands are not a lasting geographical feature. They depend on the water table, are subject to industrial use, are being drained. Often times, they are the dwindling remains of glacier retreat after the last glacial maximum, or of thawing glaciers. $\endgroup$
    – user18607
    Jan 5, 2020 at 10:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.