Letter | Published:

Unexpectedly large impact of forest management and grazing on global vegetation biomass

Nature volume 553, pages 7376 (04 January 2018) | Download Citation

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

Funding from the European Research Council (ERC-2010-stg-263522 ‘LUISE’), the European Commission (H2020-EO-2014-640176 ‘BACI’), the German Research Foundation’s Emmy Noether Program (PO 1751/1-1), GlobBiomass project of the European Space Agency (4000113100/14/I-NB), the NOVA grant UID/AMB/04085/2013, the Amsterdam Academic Alliance (AAA) and the Vetenskapsrådet grant 621-2014-4266 of the Swedish Research Council are acknowledged. We thank A. Baccini, A. S. Ruesch, S. Saatchi and P. C. West for making their data layers publicly available. K.H.-E. is grateful for the support by K. Kowalski. This research contributes to the Global Land Programme (https://glp.earth/).

Author information

Author notes

    • Thomas Kastner
    •  & Christoph Plutzar

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Institute of Social Ecology Vienna, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt-Vienna-Graz, Schottenfeldgasse 29, 1070 Vienna, Austria

    • Karl-Heinz Erb
    • , Thomas Kastner
    • , Christoph Plutzar
    • , Anna Liza S. Bais
    • , Tamara Fetzel
    • , Simone Gingrich
    • , Helmut Haberl
    • , Christian Lauk
    •  & Maria Niedertscheider
  2. Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (SBiK-F), Senckenberganlage 25, 60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • Thomas Kastner
  3. Division of Conservation Biology, Vegetation Ecology and Landscape Ecology, University of Vienna, Rennweg 14, 1030 Vienna, Austria

    • Christoph Plutzar
  4. Max Planck Institut für Biogeochemie, Hans-Knöll-Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany

    • Nuno Carvalhais
  5. CENSE, Departamento de Ciências e Engenharia do Ambiente, Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, 2829-516 Caparica, Portugal

    • Nuno Carvalhais
  6. Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Bundesstrasse 53, 20146 Hamburg, Germany

    • Julia Pongratz
  7. Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry (ACES), Stockholm University, Svante Arrhenius väg 8, 10691 Stockholm, Sweden

    • Martin Thurner
  8. Bolin Centre for Climate Research, Stockholm University, 10691 Stockholm, Sweden

    • Martin Thurner
  9. Department of Ecological Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1081 HV, The Netherlands

    • Sebastiaan Luyssaert

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Contributions

K.-H.E., T.K., C.P. and S.L. designed the study and performed the research, A.L.S.B., N.C., T.F., S.G., H.H., C.L., M.N., M.T. and J. P. contributed and analysed data and results, and all authors contributed substantially to the analysis, interpretation of results and writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Karl-Heinz Erb.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks A. Friend, R. Houghton and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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    This file contains supporting text “Contextualizing the difference of potential and actual carbon stocks with global carbon balance accounts”, supporting tables 1-3 and additional literature.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature25138

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