Understanding and managing the global carbon cycle


  • John Grace

    Corresponding author
    1. School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Darwin Building, Edinburgh EH9 3JU, UK
      John Grace (tel. +44 131 6505400; fax +44 131 6620476; e-mail: jgrace@ed.ac.uk).
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John Grace (tel. +44 131 6505400; fax +44 131 6620476; e-mail: jgrace@ed.ac.uk).


  • 1Biological carbon sinks develop in mature ecosystems that have high carbon storage when these systems are stimulated to increase productivity, so that carbon gains by photosynthesis run ahead of carbon losses by heterotrophic respiration, and the stocks of carbon therefore increase. This stimulation may occur through elevated CO2 concentration, nitrogen deposition or by changes in climate.
  • 2Sinks also occur during the ‘building’ phase of high carbon ecosystems, for example following establishment of forests by planting.
  • 3New methods have been developed to identify biological carbon sinks: ground based measurements using eddy covariance coupled with inventory methods, atmospheric methods which rely on repeated measurement of carbon dioxide concentrations in a global network, and mathematical models which simulate the processes of production, storage and decomposition of organic matter. There is broad agreement among the results from these methods: carbon sinks are currently found in tropical, temperate and boreal forests as well as the ocean.
  • 4However, on a global scale the effect of the terrestrial sinks (absorbing 2–3 billion tonnes of carbon per year) is largely offset by deforestation in the tropics (losing 1–2 billion tonnes of carbon per year).
  • 5The Kyoto Protocol provides incentives for the establishment of sinks. Unfortunately, it does not provide an incentive to protect existing mature ecosystems which constitute both stocks of carbon and (currently) carbon sinks.
  • 6Incentives would be enhanced, if protection and nature conservation were to be part of any international agreement relating to carbon sinks.