New data suggest human forest management may have more of an impact on carbon storage than previously understood

Falmouth, Mass. – A new commentary entitled “Bias in the attribution of forest carbon sinks” published in the journal Nature Climate Change was co-authored by Woods Hole Research Center Senior Scientist Richard Houghton and an international team of scientists. The commentary argues that a significant percentage of terrestrial carbon storage may be incorrectly attributed to environmental change rather than to changing forest management practices, implying that we could be effective at managing carbon if we chose to do so.

Two broad processes are responsible for changes in the amount of carbon stored on land: management and nature. If management dominates the changes, we can be more confident that we can manage terrestrial, and hence atmospheric carbon; that is, we can stabilize CO2 in the atmosphere and prevent further changes in climate. On the other hand, if nature is responsible for changes in terrestrial carbon (e.g., through CO2 concentrations, climate, or changes in the nitrogen cycle), then the changes are largely out of human control.

This commentary, based on an analysis of long-term forestry data from Austria, suggests that management effects are often overlooked in calculating forest carbon budgets. Most terrestrial carbon accounting is concerned with the environmental causes of change; Dr. Houghton persists in holding out the possibility that the effects of land management practices, such as fire suppression and management, tillage practices and silviculture, are at least as important as the environment in explaining the accumulation of carbon in managed lands.

According to Dr. Houghton, “If we could accurately account for all effects, we’d be in a much better position to predict how terrestrial carbon storage will behave in the future under a warmer, more intensely managed world and we’d be in a better position to suggest which land-use policies could be used to mitigate climate change.”

This research was funded by the EU-FP7 project VOLANTE (265104), by the ERC Grants 263522 and 242564, the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) project P20812-G11, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the provision programme of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, and the Einstein Siftung Berlin.

Full citation and link for the article: K-H. Erb, Kastner, Kastner, T., Luyssaert, S.,Houghton, R.A., Kuemmerle, T., Olofsson, P., and Haberl, H. 2013. Bias in the Attribution of Forest Carbon Sinks. Nature Climate Change 3:854-856. doi 10.1038/nclimate2004

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