Carbon sequestration in plantations can play an important role in mitigating the build-up of atmospheric CO2. The actual magnitude depends on natural and management factors, social barriers, and the time frame considered. In addition, there are a number of ancillary benefits for local communities and the environment. Carbon plantations are, however, particularly effective in the long term. Furthermore, plantations do not offer the ultimate solution towards stabilizing CO2 concentrations but should be part of a broader package of options with clear energy emission reduction measures.
Carbon plantations are introduced in climate change policy as an option to slow the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations. Here we present a methodology to evaluate the potential effectiveness of carbon plantations. The methodology explicitly considers future long-term land-use change around the world and all relevant carbon (C) fluxes, including all natural fluxes. Both issues have generally been ignored in earlier studies.
Two different baseline scenarios up to 2100 indicate that uncertainties in future land-use change lead to a near 100% difference in estimates of carbon sequestration potentials. Moreover, social, economic and institutional barriers preventing carbon plantations in natural vegetation areas decrease the physical potential by 75-80% or more.
Nevertheless, carbon plantations can still considerably contribute to slowing the increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration but only in the long term. The most conservative set of assumptions lowers the increase of the atmospheric CO2 concentration in 2100 by a 27 ppm and compensates for 5-7% of the total energy-related CO2 emissions. The net sequestration up to 2020 is limited, given the short-term increased need for agricultural land in most regions and the long period needed to compensate for emissions through the establishment of the plantations. The potential is highest in the tropics, despite projections that most of the agricultural expansion will be in these regions. Plantations in high latitudes as Northern Europe and Northern Russia should only be established if the objective to sequester carbon is combined with other activities.