Land Surface Change and Carbon Management – Implications for Climate-Change Mitigation Policy

We published in 2003 an article in Climate Policy which needs to be repeated today. This is needed since the approaches reported in the media to address climate change and variability is oversimplifying a very complicated issue (e.g. see). Our paper is

Marland, G., R.A. Pielke, Sr., M. Apps, R. Avissar, R.A. Betts, K.J. Davis, P.C. Frumhoff, S.T. Jackson, L. Joyce, P. Kauppi, J. Katzenberger, K.G. MacDicken, R. Neilson, J.O. Niles, D. dutta S. Niyogi, R.J. Norby, N. Pena, N. Sampson, and Y. Xue, 2003: The climatic impacts of land surface change and carbon management, and the implications for climate-change mitigation policy. Climate Policy, 3, 149-157.

The abstract reads,

“Strategies to mitigate anthropogenic climate change recognize that carbon sequestration in the terrestrial biosphere can reduce the build-up of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, climate mitigation policies do not generally incorporate the effects of these changes in the land surface on the surface albedo, the fluxes of sensible and latent heat to the atmosphere, and the distribution of energy within the climate system. Changes in these components of the surface energy budget can affect the local, regional, and global climate. Given the goal of mitigating climate change, it is important to consider all of the effects of changes in the terrestrial vegetation and to work toward a better understanding of the full climate system. Acknowledging the importance of land-surface change as a component of climate change makes it more challenging to create a system of credits and debits wherein emission or sequestration of carbon in the biosphere is equated with emission of carbon from fossil fuels. Recognition of the complexity of human-caused changes in climate should not, however, be used as an excuse to avoid actions that would minimize our disturbance of the Earth’s environmental system and that would reduce societal and ecological vulnerability to environmental
change and variability. ”

This paper was written as part of the output from a September, 2001, workshop at the Aspen Global Change Institute. , and shows that a broad based consensus can be achieved when an open process of diaglog is permitted. The diverse group of authors are given below:

Gregg Marland, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, USA,
Roger A. Pielke Sr., Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, USA,
Mike Apps, Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada,
Roni Avissar, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Duke University, USA,
Richard A. Betts, Met Office, Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Rresearch,UK,
Kenneth J. Davis, Department of Meteorology, Pennsylvania State University, USA,
Peter C. Frumhoff, Union of Concerned Scientists, USA,
Stephen T. Jackson, Department of Botany, University of Wyoming, USA,
Linda A. Joyce, Rocky Mountain Research Station, U.S. Forest Service, USA,
Pekka Kauppi, University of Helsinki, Finland,
John Katzenberger, Aspen Global Change Institute, USA,
Kenneth G. MacDicken, Center for International Forestry Research, Indonesia,
Ronald P. Neilson, USDA Forest Service, USA, rneilson@fs.fed.usJohn O. Niles, Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley, USA,
Dev dutta S. Niyogi, Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences, N. C. State University, USA,
Richard J. Norby, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, USA,
Naomi Pena, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, USA,
Neil Sampson, The Sampson Group Inc., USA,
Yongkang Xue, Geography Department, University of California, Los Angeles, USA,

The Conclusion of the paper states,

“There has been widespread acceptance that at some level sequestering carbon in the terrestrial biosphere has the same effect on atmospheric CO2 as does reducing emissions of CO2 (IPCC, 2000). We point out that whereas the immediate effect on atmospheric CO2 may be the same, the effect on the Earth’s climate is not the same. Climate is the interaction of all of the components of the Earth system and it includes the solar and infrared radiation and sensible and latent heat fluxes that are all impacted by changes in the Earth’s surface.

Given the goal of mitigating climate change, it is important to consider our influence on all of the system components and to work toward a better representation of the full system. Present mitigation strategies focus on a single factor (greenhouse gas concentrations) and a single spatial scale (global average climate). While these provide a starting point for confronting climate change; climate change involves other factors and other scales. Humans and ecosystems reside in local climates, not in the global average climate.

Science is moving toward an integrated understanding of our climate system. How this understanding will be woven into public policy is not clear. The complexity of climate understanding requires a linkage between science and public policy so that policy can evolve as our understanding increases. The immediate question is how to minimize the vulnerability of ecosystems and human society to climate change and climate variability. To what extent do current climate-policy initiatives, focused on greenhouse gas concentrations, succeed in providing incentive for actions that reduce undesirable human influences on the climate system and increase resilience to climate change? The integrated perspective on climate change described here raises the importance of human-induced land-cover change in global mitigation strategies, but makes comparison with other mitigation strategies more complex. Trying to make present investments in the long-term health and resilience of ecosystems, and trying to make the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change operational and consistent with its stated objectives, thus confronts a variety of complex issues.

Which actions then clearly help to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system?â€? Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to stabilize or reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and minimizing loss of existing forests, grasslands, and native ecosystems surely work to minimize human-induced climate change on all scales. We suggest that efforts to restore or mimic the structures and functions of native ecosystems will also generally be consistent with the desire to minimize the human impact on the climate system. And, there are many other environmental, economic, and social values that are important in land management choices. Recognition of the complexity of human-caused changes in climate should not be used as an excuse to avoid actions that will minimize our disturbance of the Earth’s environmental system and that will decrease vulnerability to environmental change and variability. Reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions and land-surface change, for example, represent appropriate approaches to lessen our impact on the environment. Our hierarchy of approaches for integrating land surface changes into climate mitigation strategies offers a significant challenge for the further integration of science and public policy.”

The media and “scientific” assessments that neglect the issues raised in this paper should be interpreted as advocacy publications.

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