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Historical carbon dioxide emissions caused by land-use changes are possibly larger than assumed


The terrestrial biosphere absorbs about 20% of fossil-fuel CO2 emissions. The overall magnitude of this sink is constrained by the difference between emissions, the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and the ocean sink. However, the land sink is actually composed of two largely counteracting fluxes that are poorly quantified: fluxes from land-use change and CO2 uptake by terrestrial ecosystems. Dynamic global vegetation model simulations suggest that CO2 emissions from land-use change have been substantially underestimated because processes such as tree harvesting and land clearing from shifting cultivation have not been considered. As the overall terrestrial sink is constrained, a larger net flux as a result of land-use change implies that terrestrial uptake of CO2 is also larger, and that terrestrial ecosystems might have greater potential to sequester carbon in the future. Consequently, reforestation projects and efforts to avoid further deforestation could represent important mitigation pathways, with co-benefits for biodiversity. It is unclear whether a larger land carbon sink can be reconciled with our current understanding of terrestrial carbon cycling. Our possible underestimation of the historical residual terrestrial carbon sink adds further uncertainty to our capacity to predict the future of terrestrial carbon uptake and losses.

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Figure 1: Difference in LULCC emission flux (ΔFLULCC) due to individual processes.
Figure 2: Response ratio of cumulative FLULCC,1 and FLULCC,0.
Figure 3: Net and gross forest/natural land changes in different LULCC data sets.


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A.A., A.D.B. and T.A.M.P. acknowledge support from EU FP7 grants LUC4C (grant no. 603542), OPERAS (grant no. 308393), and the Helmholtz Association in its ATMO programme and its impulse and networking fund. M.F., W.L., C.Y. and S.S. were also funded by LUC4C. J.P. and J.E.M.S.N. were supported by the German Research Foundation's Emmy Noether Programme (PO 1751/1-1). E.K. was supported by the Environment Research and Technology Development Fund (ERTDF) (S-10) from the Ministry of the Environment, Japan. E.R. was funded by LUC4C and by the Joint UK DECC/Defra Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme (GA01101). S.Z. has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 647204; QUINCY). B.D.S. is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and FP7 funding through project EMBRACE (282672). P.C. received support from the ERC SyG project IMBALANCE-P: 'Effects of phosphorus limitations on Life, Earth system and Society' grant agreement no. 610028. This is paper number 24 of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research.

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A.A., S.S., J.P. and B.D.S. conceived the study. B.P., L.C., L.P.C., A.B., M.F., E.K., J.E.M.S.N., A.D.B., M.L., T.A.M.P., E.R., T.G., N.V., C.Y. and S.Z. made changes to model code and provided simulation results. A.A. and S.S. analysed results. B.D.S., P.C. and W.L. provided Fig. 3. A.A. wrote the first draft, all authors commented on the draft and discussion of results.

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Correspondence to A. Arneth.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Arneth, A., Sitch, S., Pongratz, J. et al. Historical carbon dioxide emissions caused by land-use changes are possibly larger than assumed. Nature Geosci 10, 79–84 (2017).

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