As society faces the urgent need to mitigate climate change, it is critical to understand how various ecosystems contribute to the climate, and to express these contributions in terms that are meaningful to policymakers, economists, land managers, and other nonscience interest holders. Efforts to mitigate climate change call for quantification of the full greenhouse gas (GHG) effects of land use decisions, yet we lack an appropriate metric of the full GHG implications of maintaining a given ecosystem over a multiple year time frame. Here, we propose the concept of greenhouse gas value (GHGV) of ecosystems, which accounts for potential GHG release upon clearing of stored organic matter, annual GHG flux, and probable GHG exchanges resulting from disturbance. It treats these ecosystem–atmosphere exchanges in a time-sensitive manner, thereby providing an appropriate framework for computing of the GHG consequences of any land use decision. To illustrate this concept, we provide estimates of the GHGV of various biome types (based on data compiled from the literature), disturbance regimes, and decisions on the treatment of time. We show that natural ecosystems generally have high GHGV's, whereas managed ecosystems generally have lower or negative GHGV's; that GHGV decreases with increasing probability of disturbance, and that decisions on the treatment of time can be important, affecting some ecosystem types more strongly than others. In addition, we show how GHGV may be used to quantify the full GHG effects of land-use or land-cover change in a thorough and rigorous manner. Finally, we provide comparisons of GHGV to other major paradigms for valuing the GHG contributions of ecosystems, showing that – for many purposes –GHGV is the most appropriate method of quantifying the GHG services of ecosystems.
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