Climatic Change

, Volume 46, Issue 1–2, pp 115–158

Global Warming and Tropical Land-Use Change: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Biomass Burning, Decomposition and Soils in Forest Conversion, Shifting Cultivation and Secondary Vegetation

  • Philip M. Fearnside


Tropical forest conversion, shiftingcultivation and clearing of secondary vegetation makesignificant contributions to global emissions ofgreenhouse gases today, and have the potential forlarge additional emissions in future decades. Globally, an estimated 3.1×109 t of biomasscarbon of these types is exposed to burning annually,of which 1.1×109 t is emitted to the atmospherethrough combustion and 49×106 t is converted tocharcoal (including 26–31×106 t C of blackcarbon). The amount of biomass exposed to burningincludes aboveground remains that failed to burn ordecompose from clearing in previous years, andtherefore exceeds the 1.9×109 t of abovegroundbiomass carbon cleared on average each year. Above-and belowground carbon emitted annually throughdecomposition processes totals 2.1×109 t C. Atotal gross emission (including decomposition ofunburned aboveground biomass and of belowgroundbiomass) of 3.41×109 t C year-1 resultsfrom clearing primary (nonfallow) and secondary(fallow) vegetation in the tropics. Adjustment fortrace gas emissions using IPCC Second AssessmentReport 100-year integration global warming potentialsmakes this equivalent to 3.39×109 t ofCO2-equivalent carbon under a low trace gasscenario and 3.83×109 t under a high trace gasscenario. Of these totals, 1.06×109 t (31%)is the result of biomass burning under the low tracegas scenario and 1.50×109 t (39%) under thehigh trace gas scenario. The net emissions from allclearing of natural vegetation and of secondaryforests (including both biomass and soil fluxes) is2.0×109 t C, equivalent to 2.0–2.4×109 t of CO2-equivalent carbon. Adding emissions of0.4×109 t C from land-use category changesother than deforestation brings the total for land-usechange (not considering uptake of intact forest,recurrent burning of savannas or fires in intactforests) to 2.4×109 t C, equivalent to 2.4–2.9×109 t of CO2-equivalent carbon. The totalnet emission of carbon from the tropical land usesconsidered here (2.4×109 t C year-1)calculated for the 1981–1990 period is 50% higherthan the 1.6×109 t C year-1 value used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The inferred (= `missing') sink in the global carbonbudget is larger than previously thought. However,about half of the additional source suggested here maybe offset by a possible sink in uptake by Amazonianforests. Both alterations indicate that continueddeforestation would produce greater impact on globalcarbon emissions. The total net emission of carboncalculated here indicates a major global warmingimpact from tropical land uses, equivalent toapproximately 29% of the total anthropogenic emissionfrom fossil fuels and land-use change.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip M. Fearnside
    • 1
  1. 1.National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA)Manaus, AmazonasBrazil

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