According to a new study published earlier this month, reducing air pollution from aerosol particles can have a positive impact on air quality. It also has the potential to enhance sunlight availability for plants, which in turn improves their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and address climate change.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used satellite data to examine photosynthetic activity and aerosol pollution in Europe. Their research demonstrated that plants are able to capture more carbon on weekends when industrial activity is lower and fewer people commute.

Photosynthesis is a vital process where plants convert solar energy into chemical energy. During this process, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into carbohydrates and fats.

This natural process is crucial in combating climate change resulting from human activities. Photosynthesis helps remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere and prevents it from contributing to global warming.

However, the benefits of photosynthesis can be hampered by poor air quality caused by aerosol pollution. Aerosols, which are emitted into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels or wood, have detrimental effects on air quality and human health. They can also scatter or absorb sunlight, hindering a plant’s ability to thrive as if it were in shaded conditions.

Research methods

The research team employed the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) aboard the Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite to measure photosynthetic activity in Europe. By observing the fluorescence emitted during one step of the photosynthesis process, the team was able to collect valuable data using satellite technology.

The scientists correlated their findings on photosynthesis with measurements of aerosols taken by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. They used modeling to gain insights into the relationship between the two.

The focus of the study was Europe. According to, the researchers focused on Europe because it exhibits a well-established pattern of human activity throughout the week compared to other regions.

Findings and implications

The research revealed a weekly cycle of photosynthetic activity, which peaked on the weekends and declined during the weekdays. Surprisingly, this pattern was the exact opposite of the aerosol pollution patterns. A similar trend was observed during COVID-19 lockdown periods when people were staying at home and not commuting.

If particulate pollution could be reduced throughout the entire week to match the levels observed on weekends, it would result in the removal of approximately 40 to 60 megatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year. This carbon dioxide would be trapped in biological matter, contributing to its storage.

These findings hold significant policy implications for European governments, who are striving to sequester approximately 500 megatons of carbon dioxide per year. The research suggests that better air quality allows climate goals to be met more effectively.

Lack of consistency with previous studies

The new study is also significant because it reaches opposite conclusions to earlier studies. A 2018 study published in Geophysical Research Letters found that if people were to eliminate aerosol pollution, global temperatures would rise by between 0.5 and 1.1 degrees Celsius (0.9 to 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit).

Natural aerosols from volcanoes are known to limit incoming solar radiation, resulting in temporary global cooling. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines reduced global temperatures by about 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next 12 months. The 2018 study found that artificial aerosols have the same cooling effect.

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