Re-evaluation of wetland carbon sink mitigation

A new review of coastal and inland wetland carbon sink services reveals current mitigation concepts for greenhouse gas emissions and measurements are not what they seem. Accumulation of buried organic carbon is not a measure of carbon sequestration; stable organic carbon inputs require subtraction and are undervalued; and carbon mitigation from wetland restoration is less than their preservation. 

The study was published in the journal Wetlands as a flagship Mark Brison Review, from Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGLAS) in collaboration with Borneo Marine Research Institute (BMRI) Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), and lead by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) University of Tasmania (UTAS).  

Associate Reseacher Dr John Barry Gallagher (IMAS) said that the sediment organic carbon accumulation down inland and coastal wetlands has always been regarded as a convenient means of measuring trends and average rates of sequestration over climatic scales. Wetlands, however, are open to organic inputs from catchments and adjacent water bodies. These can be labile and easily consumed or decomposed, and recalcitrant outside the carbon loop that is not consumed or decomposed. 

Consequently, what is required from the sediment record is not the total organic burial, but the burial rate of what remains of the wetlands plant production from the amount of the labile organics inputs consumed, and the remains of those recalcitrants inputs, largely black or pyrogenic carbon. To estimate this we modified a general decomposition model to hindcast the original input rate and to project what remains for all organic sources after 100 years of burial. 

For a mangrove and a seagrass ecosystem, we found that carbon accumulation was on average 33.5 and 7.2 times greater than their respective sequestration rates. We also noted that sequestration relative to its non-canopy replacement or alternative stable state is not included for voluntary or compliance carbon markets, instead, only the rate of loss and gain of organic stocks for wetlands likely be disturbed or restored. This limitation would otherwise undervalue the wetlands systems mitigation potential with one caveat: the rate of gain in sediment stocks for a restored system is similarly constrained as a mitigation service by consumption and decomposition of those external organic inputs. 

Dr Gallagher says that the review is important from two standpoints. Firstly, natural carbon sequestration solutions require re-evaluation. This is required to avoid GHG emissions above their capacity or indeed reduce the ability to fulfil Nations’emission targets, as set by COP26. Secondly, the model provides a new Paleoecological tool. It has the potential to measure and predict how wetlands' ability to function as a carbon sink can change with both climate and catchment agricultural and industrial development from changes to government policy.

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