Opinion | Nature’s solar panels keeping the planet alive | Tim Roberts

Sometimes it is worth going back to basics to help in understanding where we are today and where we will be tomorrow.

The photo shows a solar panel attached to a street light. The solar panel is capturing the radiant energy of the sunlight and turning it into electric current to provide power to the street lamp. In the background the same process is going on.

The leaves of the trees are trapping and utilising energy from the sun. The chemistry of the green pigment, called chlorophyll, in these leaves allow light energy to be trapped and converted into chemical energy in the form of sugars and other substances.

But more importantly, the leaves, through this photosynthesis process, are taking in carbon dioxide gas and water and using the energy of the sun to produce these carbohydrates, and giving off oxygen as a waste product. This oxygen is essential to animal life where it is used to convert the sugars back to carbon dioxide and yield energy for animals’ life processes.

The carbon atoms go around the carbon cycle, so without plants, life as we know it would expire due to lack of oxygen. Thus the energy of sunshine is trapped and turned into wood, vegetables and fruits. And when forests are buried for hundreds of millions of years the leaves and wood are turned into coal (fossilised energy). The carbon cycle is interrupted until the coal is burned, when once again carbon dioxide gas is released.

Our problem is that we have burnt so much of this fossilised energy in the past 200 years that the build-up of this gas in the atmosphere is a major cause of global warming.

Plants are not only nature’s solar panels they have an overwhelmingly important role in sustaining landscape productivity, climatic balance and life on the planet.

Professor Tim Roberts is the director of the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment, University of Newcastle