Tree planting in organic soils does not result in net carbon sequestration on decadal timescales


Friggens NL, Hester AJ, Mitchell RJ, Parker TC, Subke J & Wookey PA (2020) Tree planting in organic soils does not result in net carbon sequestration on decadal timescales. Global Change Biology, 26 (9), pp. 5178-5188.

Tree planting is increasingly being proposed as a strategy to combat climate change through carbon (C) sequestration in tree biomass. However, total ecosystem C storage that includes soil organic C (SOC) must be considered to determine whether planting trees for climate change mitigation results in increased C storage. We show that planting two native tree species (Betula pubescens and Pinus sylvestris ), of widespread Eurasian distribution, onto heather (Calluna vulgaris ) moorland with podzolic and peaty podzolic soils in Scotland, did not lead to an increase in net ecosystem C stock 12 or 39 years after planting. Plots with trees had greater soil respiration and lower SOC in organic soil horizons than heather control plots. The decline in SOC cancelled out the increment in C stocks in tree biomass on decadal timescales. At all four experimental sites sampled, there was no net gain in ecosystem C stocks 12–39 years after afforestation—indeed we found a net ecosystem C loss in one of four sites with deciduous B. pubescens stands; no net gain in ecosystem C at three sites planted with B. pubescens ; and no net gain at additional stands of P. sylvestris . We hypothesize that altered mycorrhizal communities and autotrophic C inputs have led to positive ‘priming’ of soil organic matter, resulting in SOC loss, constraining the benefits of tree planting for ecosystem C sequestration. The results are of direct relevance to current policies, which promote tree planting on the assumption that this will increase net ecosystem C storage and contribute to climate change mitigation. Ecosystem‐level biogeochemistry and C fluxes must be better quantified and understood before we can be assured that large‐scale tree planting in regions with considerable pre‐existing SOC stocks will have the intended policy and climate change mitigation outcomes.

afforestation; Betula pubescens; carbon stocks; climate change mitigation; mycorrhiza; Pinus sylvestris; soil carbon dynamics; tree planting

Global Change Biology: Volume 26, Issue 9

FundersNERC Natural Environment Research Council and NERC Natural Environment Research Council
Publication date30/09/2020
Publication date online31/07/2020
Date accepted by journal08/06/2020