NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Carbon Sinks Could Meet Kyoto Goals

May 16, 2000

Last week in Montreal, scientists on the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report on expanding terrestrial carbon sinks to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide -- and thus predicted global warming from the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, by about 2010 the rich industrial countries are obligated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels -- or about 200 million tons less per year. Countries may be able to gain credit for reductions by increasing the amount of carbon held in soils or vegetation.

Such "carbon sequestration" could be increased by, for instance: planting more trees; no-till agriculture; conversion of cropland into grassland; fertilization of pastureland; and improved forest management practices.

Kevin Gurney, an atmospheric researcher at Colorado State University, calculated for the World Wildlife Fund that even without planting any trees, this would potentially enable the United States to remove about 150 million tons of carbon a year from the atmosphere.

  • Measures other than tree-planting, the Montreal report estimated, could remove nearly 290 million more tons of carbon a year from the atmosphere by about 2010.
  • By comparison, human use of the terrestrial biosphere, including the burning of wood, has released some 135 billion tons of carbon into the air since 1850.
  • The burning of coal, oil and natural gas has released some 270 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
  • The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is about 30 percent higher now than at the start of the industrial revolution.

But more than half the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil-fuel burning is absorbed from the air by the oceans, by plants and by soils. Globally, soil contains about five times as much carbon as vegetation does.

Source: William K. Stevens, "Seas and Soils Emerge as Keys to Climate," New York Times, May 16, 2000.


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