Many atmospheric constituents besides carbon dioxide (CO2) contribute to global warming, and it is common to compare their influence on climate in terms of radiative forcing, which measures their impact on the planetary energy budget. A number of recent studies have shown that many radiatively active constituents also have important impacts on the physiological functioning of ecosystems, and thus the ‘ecosystem services’ that humankind relies upon. CO2 increases have most probably increased river runoff and had generally positive impacts on plant growth where nutrients are non-limiting, whereas increases in near-surface ozone (O3) are very detrimental to plant productivity. Atmospheric aerosols increase the fraction of surface diffuse light, which is beneficial for plant growth. To illustrate these differences, we present the impact on net primary productivity and runoff of higher CO2, higher near-surface O3, and lower sulphate aerosols, and for equivalent changes in radiative forcing. We compare this with the impact of climate change alone, arising, for example, from a physiologically inactive gas such as methane (CH4). For equivalent levels of change in radiative forcing, we show that the combined climate and physiological impacts of these individual agents vary markedly and in some cases actually differ in sign. This study highlights the need to develop more informative metrics of the impact of changing atmospheric constituents that go beyond simple radiative forcing.

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