Storing carbon to combat global warming may cause other environmental problems, study suggests

Growing tree plantations to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to mitigate global warming -- so called "carbon sequestration" -- could trigger environmental changes that outweigh some of the benefits, a multi-institutional team led by Duke University suggested in a new report. Those effects include water and nutrient depletion and increased soil salinity and acidity, said the researchers.

"We believe that decreased stream flow and changes in soil and water quality are likely as plantations are increasingly grown for biological carbon sequestration," the 10 authors wrote in a paper published in the Friday, Dec. 23, 2005, issue of the journal Science.

The study was funded by Duke's Center on Global Change, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Global Environmental Change/Department of Energy, the inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and South Africa's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

"I think carbon sequestration with trees will work, at least for a few decades," said Robert Jackson, a professor in Duke's Department of Biology and Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences who was the paper's first author. "But I think we're asking the wrong question.

"The question isn't just 'Can we store carbon in trees and how much do we gain from that?' The question is also 'What are the other gains and losses for the environment?' We have to be smart about our sequestration policies."

Originating in a series of meetings at the Center on Global Change, which Jackson directs, the study sought to identity those tradeoffs and benefits at locations worldwide thought likely as places where land would be converted from other uses to tree plantations for carbon sequestration.

Assessing the impact of existing conversions, the study showed that the larger water demands of growing trees rather than crops or pastures "dramatically decreased str

Contact: Monte Basgall
Duke University

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