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The carbon balance of terrestrial ecosystems in China


Global terrestrial ecosystems absorbed carbon at a rate of 1–4 Pg yr-1 during the 1980s and 1990s, offsetting 10–60 per cent of the fossil-fuel emissions1,2. The regional patterns and causes of terrestrial carbon sources and sinks, however, remain uncertain1,2,3. With increasing scientific and political interest in regional aspects of the global carbon cycle, there is a strong impetus to better understand the carbon balance of China1,2,3. This is not only because China is the world’s most populous country and the largest emitter of fossil-fuel CO2 into the atmosphere4, but also because it has experienced regionally distinct land-use histories and climate trends1, which together control the carbon budget of its ecosystems. Here we analyse the current terrestrial carbon balance of China and its driving mechanisms during the 1980s and 1990s using three different methods: biomass and soil carbon inventories extrapolated by satellite greenness measurements, ecosystem models and atmospheric inversions. The three methods produce similar estimates of a net carbon sink in the range of 0.19–0.26 Pg carbon (PgC) per year, which is smaller than that in the conterminous United States5 but comparable to that in geographic Europe6. We find that northeast China is a net source of CO2 to the atmosphere owing to overharvesting and degradation of forests. By contrast, southern China accounts for more than 65 per cent of the carbon sink, which can be attributed to regional climate change, large-scale plantation programmes active since the 1980s and shrub recovery. Shrub recovery is identified as the most uncertain factor contributing to the carbon sink. Our data and model results together indicate that China’s terrestrial ecosystems absorbed 28–37 per cent of its cumulated fossil carbon emissions during the 1980s and 1990s.

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Figure 1: Carbon balance estimates of terrestrial ecosystems in China.
Figure 2: Carbon balance in the nine regions of China.
Figure 3: Terrestrial-biosphere carbon sink and its density in China, compared with those in geographic Europe and the conterminous United States.


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The authors wish to thank P. Friedlingstein for comments and discussions, the dynamic global vegetation models evaluation participants from ref. 23 for access to their data, S. Szopa for providing carbon emissions of non-CO2 species, L. M. Zhou for providing the Global Inventory Monitoring and Modelling Studies normalized difference vegetation index data, H. F. Hu for providing shrub biomass data and F. Y. Wei for collecting the climate data. For the inversions, we thank all experimentalists who contributed to the GLOBALVIEW-CO2 product and the CARBOEUROPE measurements, C. Rodenbeck, P. J. Rayner, and P. K. Patra for providing their inversion modelling results and T. Machida for providing vertical profiles from three stations over Siberia. We also thank Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique for computing support. This study was supported by the Foundation for the Author of National Excellent Doctoral Dissertation of China (FANEDD-200737), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (#90711002 and #30721140306), the Knowledge Innovation Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (#KZCX1–SW–01–13) and the State Forestry Administration of China. S.S. was supported by the Joint DECC, Defra and MoD Integrated Climate Programme – DECC/Defra (GA01101), MoD (CBC/2B/0417_Annex C5). One visit of S.P. to LSCE was funded by the Reseau Francilien de Développement Soutenable.

Author Contributions S.P., J.F., P.C. and P.P. designed the research; J.F. performed the forest inventory data analysis; S.P. performed the shrub biomass analysis; Y.H. performed the cropland soil carbon storage analysis; S.P. and T.W. performed the soil inventory data analysis; S.P., P.C. and T.W. performed later carbon flux analysis; P.P., P.C. and S.P. performed the inversion modelling analysis; S.P., S.S. and P.C. performed the terrestrial biogeochemical modelling analysis. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and the writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to Shilong Piao or Jingyun Fang.

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Piao, S., Fang, J., Ciais, P. et al. The carbon balance of terrestrial ecosystems in China. Nature 458, 1009–1013 (2009).

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