Plant respiration produces carbon dioxide, so why are plants regarded as decreasing its atmospheric concentration?

In the absence of sunlight, plants give out the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. So why is it said that plants increase the concentration of atmospheric oxygen? Do they not increase the concentration of carbon dioxide and use the oxygen produced in photosynthesis.

• Possible duplicate of Confusion regarding photosynthesis and respiration in plants Oct 24, 2019 at 4:48
• @tyersome that answer says "At night there is, of course, no photosynthesis and respiration will dominate and the plant will be a net producer of CO2 and a net consumer of O2." And I want to know if this is not a source of pollution. Oct 24, 2019 at 5:32
• possible duplicate of biology.stackexchange.com/questions/39253/…
– John
Oct 24, 2019 at 11:49
• the plant grows and gains mass too, using $CO_2$. I could be completely wrong, but perhaps during the growth phase a plant would photosynthesise more than it respires (because it’s gaining mass) which means there is a net loss in atmospheric $CO_2$ per plant. Oct 24, 2019 at 19:21
• Think! What are plants’ stems and leaves made of? Where does the carbon for that come from? So what is the net balance? Oct 26, 2019 at 7:01

There are two factors here. First is that you have to look at the plant's net production over time. Say for instance (I'm just making up numbers here) that during the day the plant takes in 88 g of CO2 and uses photosynthesis to convert it to 64 g of O2 that's released into the air, and 24 g of C that is incorporated into the plant. Then during the night it uses 12 g of the stored C for respiration (combining it with 44 g of O2 from the air), leaving a net daily production of 12 g C that goes into plant growth, and 44 g of O2 in the air.

Second problem is perhaps better classed as either linguistic confusion (to be polite) or ignorance. CO2 is not "pollution": it is a normal part - more accurately, a fundamental part - of the carbon cycle https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/CarbonCycle on which almost all life depends. The problem is not plants (or animals) releasing CO2: it's humans digging up lots of fossil carbon and burning it, thus increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations beyond the levels to which the ecosystem has adapted.

Now that you've changed the question, it's even more important to read the basic description of the carbon cycle at the link. (Honestly, wasn't this covered in your high school biology class?) Again, the bottom line is that plants produce a net surplus of O2, which animals consume along with the plants, so that the cycle remains balanced.

The tag you used on the question shows you know about photosynthesis, but it seems you don't fully recognize its significance. Yes, plants use oxygen and release CO2 all the time for energy use, but they absorb much more CO2 (and release much more O2) while storing energy during the daytime than that 24-hour energy usage undoes.

While plants release CO2 as well as absorb it, they do much more of the latter. By one scientific estimate, of all the the CO2 plants remove for photosynthesis, they release 40% of it back into the atmosphere. But that means that 60% of that CO2 absorption is never released back into the atmosphere by the plants. So, overall, the net change is that plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere (unlike animal metabolism and combustion which only add CO2 and remove none).

All those plant stems, branches, and trunks you can see are built out of CO2 that the plant will never release back into the atmosphere. The only CO2 the plants release is CO2 that they previously absorbed from the atmosphere.

Do they not increase the CO2 proportion?

No, because the CO2 they emit came from the atmosphere to begin with. And the carbon they don't release as CO2 stays as carbon compounds that make up the plant.

The issue with CO2 is not plants taking CO2 from the air and re-releasing it. That doesn't cause a steady increase in atmospheric CO2.

Taking CO2 that has been sequestered in the ground for hundreds of millions of years and adding it all to the atmosphere in a geologic eyeblink of time, that's a problem.

Plants start to grow first, from tiny size (from seed in higher plants), and from there, any size in later stages they achieve to have, they achieve it only by first absorbing all the Carbon they need, from air first. So huge part of plant's later dried weight is actually made from carbon. And all that carbon was incorporated into it's body through continuous photosynthesis - so it was "sucked" from CO2 in the air around the growing plant.

Importantly:

Unlike us, plant can not normally absorb carbohydrates (sugars, fat etc - we eat them, plants don't) in order to use them for metabolism and respiration (ie breathing). For this they can use only carbohydrates they themselves already created first from CO2, through photosynthesis.

Even when they can not use photosynthesis anymore (because of age or in the dark) - they use for respiration only that carbon which they stored in the body before by catching it from air.

And as long as the plant continues to grow and have access to any light it continues to absorb much more CO2 than it releases through respiration. So in balance it keeps absorbing CO2 and releasing oxygen in net balance.

As an mental exercise: It would be different if You would take, let say same house pot plant and place it into a completely dark room for a long time. That plant there is without light, while it already has body which it created previously through photosynthesis, it now can not capture any light and any carbon any more, yet it would still need to be continually breathing. So as this particular plant in the dark, have no source of energy for photosynthesis, and it still is breathing, so in this particular case it would produce CO2.

Practically something resembling such theoretical example happens with significance only, when we store plant body-parts like fruits and vegetables (or potatoes) for a long time. Fruits, vegetables and potatoes (often stored in the dark) breath and not photosynthesize.

The cycles between a day and night are also bringing plants for short time into the dark and as such they have negative balance (net producing CO2) for a short while, but it is insignificant from the whole day perspective (overal they consume much more CO2 than they produce it)

Interestingly, there also exist very rare species of parasitic plants (they are parasites of other plants) which are not having their own photosynthesis - in this case they have no chlorophyll and suck sugars out of other plants - and yes, they only breath and yes, they only produce CO2, so they would be probably the only plants which are net producers of carbon dioxide.

• Welcome to Biology.SE! Your answer is helpful, but it is much more likely to receive a favorable response if you edit it to include supporting references (primary literature is best though probably not needed for a question at this level). ——— You may also want to take the tour and then consult the help pages for additional advice on How to Answer effectively on this site. Thanks! 😊 Oct 24, 2019 at 23:25
• Thank You. I saw quite nice answers already, so I just took it easy and and thought about possible weaknesses in them to relay the message and tried reiterating from different point of view, which would help to absorb it. So, I just didn't thing about sources, as You sad, it feels kind of very basic. But I will try next time. Oct 25, 2019 at 9:50