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Forests and peat land, oceans and grasslands are hungry for carbon. In fact, these areas readily absorb up to half of all carbon emissions, making them a favorite target for scientists and engineers searching for a fast fix to the planet's rapidly increasing climate problem.
Unfortunately, new research indicates that, at least in Europe, these natural carbon sinks are being completely overloaded.Researchers from 17 European countries worked to compile the first comprehensive study of the continent's greenhouse gas balance. The results were not encouraging.
They found that Europe's grasslands, forests, and other areas created a carbon sink of -305 Million tonnes of carbon per year. This offsets an estimated 19% of the continent's emissions from fossil fuel burning. However, this was diminished by agricultural land, which actually emits additional CO2. Taking this factor into consideration, the sink offset 15% of annual emissions.
Even this number, the study found, was incomplete. Because all land in Europe is managed, researchers concluded, the emissions from this process must also be considered. Spreading fertilizer on fields, raising cattle and other livestock, and other such activities virtually eliminated the benefits of the natural sink. Once these factors were considered, researchers estimated a 2% reduction in annual emissions from natural carbon sinks.
When researchers looked at the states of the European Union, the picture became even grimmer. Due to management practices, the land mass included in the European Union effectively adds 34 Million tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year, raising total emissions by an additional 3%.
Detlef Schulze of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, who led the study, commented that: "These findings show that if the European landscape is to contribute to mitigating global warming, we need a new, different emphasis on land management." He went on to explain that "methane and nitrous oxide are such powerful greenhouse gases; we must manage the landscape to decrease their emissions."
The complete findings will be published in a November issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.