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In this age of climate change, we naturally train our attention on all the fossil fuels being combusted for human use — but scientists have long known that what’s happening is also all about the land.
Just as buried fossil fuels are filled with carbon from ancient plant and animal life, so too are living trees and vegetation on Earth’s surface today. Razing forests or plowing grasslands puts carbon in the atmosphere just like burning fossil fuels does.
Now, new research provides a surprisingly large estimate of just how consequential our treatment of land surfaces and vegetation has been for the planet and its atmosphere. If true, it’s a finding that could shape not only our response to climate change, but our understanding of ourselves as agents of planetary transformation.
“We have forgotten half of the story up to now,” said Karl-Heinz Erb, the lead study author and a researcher with the Institute of Social Ecology in Austria.
Using a series of detailed maps derived from satellite information and other types of ecological measurements, Erb and his colleagues estimated how much carbon is contained in Earth’s current vegetation. The number is massive: 450 billion tons of carbon, which, if it were to somehow arrive in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, would amount to over a trillion tons of the gas. (The mass is greater due to the addition of oxygen molecules.)
But the study also presented an even larger and perhaps more consequential number: 916 billion tons. That’s the amount of carbon, the research calculated, that could reside in the world’s vegetation — so not in the atmosphere — if humans somehow entirely ceased all uses of land and allowed it to return to its natural state. The inference is that current human use of land is responsible for roughly halving the potential storage of carbon by that land.
The research was published in the journal Nature by Erb and 12 colleagues from institutions in Austria, Germany, Portugal, Sweden and the Netherlands.
The impact calculation is so large because humans have done far more than just bring about deforestation, which Erb said accounts for about half of the loss of potential vegetation.
“Half of this effect, half of this halving, is already well described,” he said. “This is the deforestation signal. But the other half, in most studies, is completely missing.”
Carbon stocks in vegetation have a key role in the climate system1,2,3,4. However, the magnitude, patterns and uncertainties of carbon stocks and the effect of land use on the stocks remain poorly quantified. Here we show, using state-of-the-art datasets, that vegetation currently stores around 450 petagrams of carbon. In the hypothetical absence of land use, potential vegetation would store around 916 petagrams of carbon, under current climate conditions. This difference highlights the massive effect of land use on biomass stocks. Deforestation and other land-cover changes are responsible for 53–58% of the difference between current and potential biomass stocks. Land management effects (the biomass stock changes induced by land use within the same land cover) contribute 42–47%, but have been underestimated in the literature. Therefore, avoiding deforestation is necessary but not sufficient for mitigation of climate change. Our results imply that trade-offs exist between conserving carbon stocks on managed land and raising the contribution of biomass to raw material and energy supply for the mitigation of climate change. Efforts to raise biomass stocks are currently verifiable only in temperate forests, where their potential is limited. By contrast, large uncertainties hinder verification in the tropical forest, where the largest potential is located, pointing to challenges for the upcoming stocktaking exercises under the Paris agreement.