Climatic Change

, Volume 118, Issue 1, pp 89-103

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Ecological limits to terrestrial biological carbon dioxide removal

  • Lydia J. SmithAffiliated withUniversity of California, BerkeleyEarth Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • , Margaret S. TornAffiliated withUniversity of California, BerkeleyEarth Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Email author 


Terrestrial biological atmospheric carbon dioxide removal (BCDR) through bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECS), afforestation/reforestation, and forest and soil management is a family of proposed climate change mitigation strategies. Very high sequestration potentials for these strategies have been reported, but there has been no systematic analysis of the potential ecological limits to and environmental impacts of implementation at the scale relevant to climate change mitigation. In this analysis, we identified site-specific aspects of land, water, nutrients, and habitat that will affect local project-scale carbon sequestration and ecological impacts. Using this framework, we estimated global-scale land and resource requirements for BCDR, implemented at a rate of 1 Pg C y−1. We estimate that removing 1 Pg C y−1 via tropical afforestation would require at least 7 × 106 ha y−1 of land, 0.09 Tg y−1 of nitrogen, and 0.2 Tg y−1 of phosphorous, and would increase evapotranspiration from those lands by almost 50 %. Switchgrass BECS would require at least 2 × 108 ha of land (20 times U.S. area currently under bioethanol production) and 20 Tg y−1 of nitrogen (20 % of global fertilizer nitrogen production), consuming 4 × 1012 m3 y−1 of water. While BCDR promises some direct (climate) and ancillary (restoration, habitat protection) benefits, Pg C-scale implementation may be constrained by ecological factors, and may compromise the ultimate goals of climate change mitigation.