Working Group I: The Scientific Basis

Other reports in this collection Effects of changes in land use and land management

Changes in land use and management affect the amount of carbon in plant biomass and soils. Historical cumulative carbon losses due to changes in land use have been estimated to be 180 to 200 PgC by comparing maps of “natural” vegetation in the absence of human disturbance (derived from ground-based information (Matthews, 1983) or from modelled potential vegetation based on climate (Leemans, 1990)) to a map of current vegetation derived from 1987 satellite data (de Fries et al., 1999). Houghton (1999, 2000) estimated emissions of 121 PgC (approximately 60% in tropical areas and 40% in temperate areas) for the period 1850 to 1990 from statistics on land-use change, and a simple model tracking rates of decomposition from different pools and rates of regrowth on abandoned or reforested land. There was substantial deforestation in temperate areas prior to 1850, and this may be partially reflected in the difference between these two analyses. The estimated land-use emissions during 1850 to 1990 of 121 PgC (Houghton, 1999, 2000) can be compared to estimated net terrestrial flux of 39 PgC to the atmosphere over the same period inferred from an atmospheric increase of 144 PgC (Etheridge et al., 1996; Keeling and Whorf, 2000), a release of 212 PgC due to fossil fuel burning (Marland et al., 2000), and a modelled ocean-atmosphere flux of about -107 PgC (Gruber, 1998, Sabine et al., 1999, Feely et al., 1999a). The difference between the net terrestrial flux and estimated land-use change emissions implies a residual land-atmosphere flux of -82 PgC (i.e., a terrestrial sink) over the same period. Box 3.2 indicates the theoretical upper bounds for additional carbon storage due to land-use change, similar bounds for carbon loss by continuing deforestation, and the implications of these calculations for atmospheric CO2.

Box 3.2: Maximum impacts of reforestation and deforestation on atmospheric CO2.

Rough upper bounds for the impact of reforestation on atmospheric CO2 concentration over a century time-scale can be calculated as follows. Cumulative carbon losses to the atmosphere due to land-use change during the past 1 to 2 centuries are estimated as 180 to 200 PgC (de Fries et al., 1999) and cumulative fossil fuel emissions to year 2000 as 280 PgC (Marland et al., 2000), giving cumulative anthropogenic emissions of 480 to 500 PgC. Atmospheric CO2 content has increased by 90 ppm (190 PgC). Approximately 40% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions has thus remained in the atmosphere; the rest has been taken up by the land and oceans in roughly equal proportions (see main text). Conversely, if land-use change were completely reversed over the 21st century, a CO2 reduction of 0.40 x 200 = 80 PgC (about 40 ppm) might be expected. This calculation assumes that future ecosystems will not store more carbon than pre-industrial ecosystems, and that ocean uptake will be less because of lower CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (see Section

A higher bound can be obtained by assuming that the carbon taken up by the land during the past 1 to 2 centuries, i.e. about half of the carbon taken up by the land and ocean combined, will be retained there. This calculation yields a CO2 reduction of 0.70 x 200 = 140 PgC (about 70 ppm). These calculations are not greatly influenced by the choice of reference period. Both calculations require the extreme assumption that a large proportion of today’s agricultural land is returned to forest.

The maximum impact of total deforestation can be calculated in a similar way. Depending on different assumptions about vegetation and soil carbon density in different ecosystem types (Table 3.2) and the proportion of soil carbon lost during deforestation (20 to 50%; IPCC, 1997), complete conversion of forests to climatically equivalent grasslands would add 400 to 800 PgC to the atmosphere. Thus, global deforestation could theoretically add two to four times more CO2 to the atmosphere than could be subtracted by reforestation of cleared areas.

Land use responds to social and economic pressures to provide food, fuel and wood products, for subsistence use or for export. Land clearing can lead to soil degradation, erosion and leaching of nutrients, and may therefore reduce the subsequent ability of the ecosystem to act as a carbon sink (Taylor and Lloyd, 1992). Ecosystem conservation and management practices can restore, maintain and enlarge carbon stocks (IPCC, 2000a). Fire is important in the carbon budget of some ecosystems (e.g., boreal forests, grasslands, tropical savannas and woodlands) and is affected directly by management and indirectly by land-use change (Apps et al., 1993). Fire is a major short-term source of carbon, but adds to a small longer-term sink (<0.1 PgC/yr) through production of slowly decomposing and inert black carbon.

Deforestation has been responsible for almost 90% of the estimated emissions due to land-use change since 1850, with a 20% decrease of the global forest area (Houghton, 1999). Deforestation appears to be slowing slightly in tropical countries (FAO, 1997; Houghton, 2000), and some deforested areas in Europe and North America have been reforested in recent decades (FAO, 1997). Managed or regenerated forests generally store less carbon than natural forests, even at maturity. New trees take up carbon rapidly, but this slows down towards maturity when forests can be slight sources or sinks (Buchmann and Schulze, 1999). To use land continuously in order to take up carbon, the wood must be harvested and turned into long-lived products and trees must be re-planted. The trees may also be used for biomass energy to avoid future fossil fuel emissions (Hall et al., 2000). Analysis of scenarios for future development show that expanded use of biomass energy could reduce the rate of atmospheric CO2 increase (IPCC 1996b; Leemans et al., 1996; Edmonds et al., 1996; Ishitani et al., 1996; IPCC, 2000a). IPCC (1996b) estimated that slowing deforestation and promoting natural forest regeneration and afforestation could increase carbon stocks by about 60 to 87 PgC over the period 1995 to 2050, mostly in the tropics (Brown et al., 1996).

Savannas and grasslands – fire and grazing
Grasslands and mixed tree-grass systems are vulnerable to subtle environmental and management changes that can lead to shifts in vegetation state (Scholes and Archer, 1997; House and Hall, 2001). Livestock grazing on these lands is the land use with the largest global areal extent (FAO, 1993a). Extensive clearing of trees (for agricultural expansion) has occurred in some areas. In other areas, fire suppression, eradication of indigenous browsers and the introduction of intensive grazing and exotic trees and shrubs have caused an increase in woody plant density known as woody encroachment or tree thickening (Archer et al., 2001). This process has been estimated to result in a CO2 sink of up to 0.17 PgC/yr in the USA during the 1980s (Houghton et al., 1999) and at least 0.03 PgC/yr in Australia (Burrows, 1998). Grassland ecosystems have high root production and store most of their carbon in soils where turnover is relatively slow, allowing the possibility of enhancement through management (e.g., Fisher et al., 1994).

Peatlands/wetlands are large reserves of carbon, because anaerobic soil conditions and (in northern peatlands) low temperatures reduce decomposition and promote accumulation of organic matter. Total carbon stored in northern peatlands has been estimated as about 455 PgC (Gorham, 1991) with a current uptake rate in extant northern peatlands of 0.07 PgC/yr (Clymo et al., 1998). Anaerobic decomposition releases methane (CH4) which has a global warming potential (GWP) about 23 times that of CO2 (Chapter 6). The balance between CH4 release and CO2 uptake and release is highly variable and poorly understood. Draining peatlands for agriculture increases total carbon released by decomposition, although less is in the form of CH4. Forests grown on drained peatlands may be sources or sinks of CO2 depending on the balance of decomposition and tree growth (Minkkinen and Laine, 1998).

Agricultural land
Conversion of natural vegetation to agriculture is a major source of CO2, not only due to losses of plant biomass but also, increased decomposition of soil organic matter caused by disturbance and energy costs of various agricultural practices (e.g., fertilisation and irrigation; Schlesinger, 2000). Conversely, the use of high-yielding plant varieties, fertilisers, irrigation, residue management and reduced tillage can reduce losses and enhance uptake within managed areas (Cole et al., 1996; Blume et al., 1998). These processes have led to an estimated increase of soil carbon in agricultural soils in the USA of 0.14 PgC/yr during the 1980s (Houghton et al., 1999). IPCC (1996b) estimated that appropriate management practices could increase carbon sinks by 0.4 to 0.9 PgC/yr , or a cumulative carbon storage of 24 to 43 PgC over 50 years; energy efficiency improvements and production of energy from dedicated crops and residues would result in a further mitigation potential of 0.3 to 1.4 PgC/yr, or a cumulative carbon storage of 16 to 68 PgC over 50 years (Cole et al., 1996).

The IPCC Special Report on Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (IPCC, 2000a) (hereafter SRLULUCF) derived scenarios of land-use emissions for the period 2008 to 2012. It was estimated that a deforestation flux of 1.79 PgC/yr is likely to be offset by reforestation and afforestation flux of -0.20 to -0.58 PgC/yr, yielding a net release of 1.59 to 1.20 PgC/yr (Schlamadinger et al., 2000). The potential for net carbon storage from several “additional activities” such as improved land management and other land-use changes was estimated to amount to a global land-atmosphere flux in the region of -1.3 PgC/yr in 2010 and -2.5 PgC/yr in 2040, not including wood products and bioenergy (Sampson et al., 2000).

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