Transit time of carbon and the climate benefit of sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems
Ecosystems play a fundamental role in climate change mitigation by photosynthetically fixing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it for a period of time in organic matter. Although climate impacts of carbon emissions by sources can be quantified by global warming potentials, the appropriate formal metrics to assess climate benefits of carbon removals by sinks are unclear. We introduce here the climate benefit of sequestration (CBS), a metric that quantifies the radiative effect of fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and retaining it for a period of time in an ecosystem before releasing it back as the result of respiratory processes and disturbances. In order to quantify CBS, we present a formal definition of carbon sequestration (CS) as the integral of an amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere stored over the time horizon it remains within an ecosystem. Both metrics incorporate the separate effects of (i) inputs (amount of atmospheric carbon removal) and (ii) transit time (time of carbon retention) on carbon sinks, which can vary largely for different ecosystems or forms of management. These metrics can be useful for comparing the climate impacts of carbon removals by different sinks over specific time horizons, to assess the climate impacts of ecosystem management, and to obtain direct quantifications of climate impacts as the net effect of carbon emissions by sources versus removals by sinks.