Paper: Managing the carbon cycle requires strong science

December 1, 2015


According to a newly released opinion piece published in collaboration with the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program community,'....Current and future advances in climate policy depend on a robust infrastructure for science and observation of the carbon cycle at multiple scales......Comprehensive plans that include both short- and long-term interdisciplinary strategies for the carbon cycle science needed to support climate policy already exist [e.g., Michalak et al., 2011; Ciais et al., 2014]: Now is the time for their implementation.’

The PDF of this paper is available here.

Some excerpts from the paper are below.

...Current Understanding

On timescales relevant to current policy, the global carbon cycle can be considered a closed system in which anthropogenic carbon put into the atmosphere must either remain there or be absorbed into the terrestrial biosphere or the oceans. Since 2007, the Global Carbon Project, an international partnership of carbon cycle scientists, has used this closed-system approach to produce annual global carbon budgets [Le Quéré et al., 2014]....Estimating regional carbon fluxes and budgets and their temporal change, however, is much more challenging [Schuster et al., 2013; King et al., 2015], largely because many processes occurring in human, terrestrial, and oceanic systems are poorly understood. For example, urban areas are responsible for up to 76% of humans’ carbon dioxide emissions, but much uncertainty remains regarding how these urban contributions are regionally distributed and connected with rural emissions [Romero-Lankao et al., 2014]....

....Management Opportunities for Carbon Sinks

....But incorporating carbon into land and water management decisions will require better knowledge of how carbon moves through and is transformed within these systems. We must also know how to keep carbon within these systems for the long term and how to quantify “lateral flux” losses. Uncertainty in the mechanisms of carbon sinks must be low enough to provide confidence that a policy will lead to sufficient carbon storage, especially if a price is placed on carbon. The mechanistic understanding required for effective support of such policy developments remains a major step beyond globally integrated budgets, which the carbon cycle community has only just begun to produce annually. If we want to modify and manage the carbon cycle, we need improved process knowledge with respect to carbon cycling on land, in water, and in human systems....

(Related highlights on the newly released 2015 Global Carbon Budget are available here.)