Intensive land-management in agriculture leaves Europe without carbon sinks

A new calculation of Europe’s greenhouse gas balance shows that emissions of methane and nitrous oxide tip the balance and eliminate Europe’s forest terrestrial sink. Thus, overall the whole land use is neither a strong sink, nor a strong source. This is a totally different look at the role of land use which is often seen as a sink. This sink is even heavily negotiated in the Copenhagen climate negotiations.

Researchers from 17 European countries cooperating in the EU-Integrated Project CarboEurope, have compiled the first comprehensive greenhouse gas balance of Europe.

The new bookkeeping effort confirmed the existence of a strong mainly forests carbon sink of 125 Million tonnes of carbon per year in (EU) European forests. A sink of this magnitude could offset 10% of the emission from fossil fuel burning. However, agricultural land and drained peat-land are emitting 23 million tonnes of CO2, which cancels part of this sink. The resulting net CO2 sink of the EU is 102 Million tonnes of carbon per year.

But this balance is still incomplete, because all European ecosystems are managed and as a by-product of land management other powerful greenhouse gases are released – for example nitrous oxide from fertilizers applied to grassland and crops, and methane from ruminants and from peat-lands. These previously neglected emissions of GHG from land-use effectively increases the emissions from fossil fuel burning by 28 Million tonnes C.

These findings show that if the European landscape is to contribute to mitigating global warming, we need a new, different emphasis on land management. Methane and nitrous oxide are such powerful greenhouse gases, we must manage the landscape to decrease their emissions, and we must sustainably manage our forests in order to increase and sustain the forest sink.

Schulze et al. 2009. Importance of methane and nitrous oxide for Europe’s terrestrial greenhouse-gas balance. Nature Geoscience, 2, December 2009.

More information:

Gert-Jan Nabuurs, European Forest Institute

Supplement figures can be found here.


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