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Journal of Environmental Quality Abstract -

Can Planted Forests Counteract Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide?


This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 20 No. 2, p. 348-354
    Received: May 11, 1990

    * Corresponding author(s):
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  1. Peter M. Vitousek *
  1. Dep. of Biology, Stanford Univ., Stanford, CA 94305.



Establishing new forests has been widely suggested as a means to prevent, reduce, or delay fossil fuel-driven increases in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. This analysis examines the potential magnitude of C storage in biomass, emphasizing the amount of land area that could be planted to trees, the rates of C storage in developing forest plantations, and the fate of material harvested from forests. I conclude that while converting old-growth forests to plantations is a losing proposition, there may be sufficient formerly forested land and the possibility of sufficiently high rates of C storage in young tree plantations that reforestation could remove substantial quantifies of C from the atmosphere (≥1 Pg yr−1). However, rapid net C storage is a short-lived phenomenon, and it is unlikely that a substantial fraction of material harvested from plantations can go into long-term storage on land. Therefore, new tree plantations designed to store C can at best cause a brief delay in the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. Forest plantations designed to produce energy from biomass would represent a longer-term contribution to reducing rates of CO2 accumulation—as long as they replaced fossil fuel-derived energy.

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