Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems

Greenhouse gas fluxes from natural ecosystems

Ram C. Dalal A B and Diane E. Allen A

A Department of Natural Resources and Water, 80 Meiers Road, Indooroopilly, Qld 4068, Australia.

B Corresponding author. Email:

Australian Journal of Botany 56(5) 369-407
Submitted: 2 July 2007  Accepted: 25 March 2008   Published: 24 July 2008


Besides water vapour, greenhouse gases CO2, CH4, O3 and N2O contribute ~60%, 20%, 10% and 6% to global warming, respectively; minor contribution is made by chlorofluorocarbons and volatile organic compounds (VOC). We present CO2, CH4 and N2O fluxes from natural and relatively unmanaged soil–plant ecosystems (the ecosystems minimally disturbed by direct human or human-induced activities). All natural ecosystems are net sinks for CO2, although tundra and wetlands (including peatlands) are large sources of CH4, whereas significant N2O emissions occur mainly from tropical and temperate forests. Most natural ecosystems decrease net global warming potential (GWP) from –0.03 ± 0.35 t CO2-e ha–1 y–1 (tropical forests) to –0.90 ± 0.42 t CO2-e ha–1 y–1 (temperate forests) and –1.18 ± 0.44 t CO2-e ha–1 y–1 (boreal forests), mostly as CO2 sinks in phytobiomass, microbial biomass and soil C. But net GWP contributions from wetlands are very large, which is primarily due to CH4 emissions. Although the tropical forest system provides a large carbon sink, the negligible capacity of tropical forests to reduce GWP is entirely due to N2O emissions, possibly from rapid N mineralisation under favourable temperature and moisture conditions. It is estimated that the natural ecosystems reduce the net atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 3.55 ± 0.44 Gt CO2-e y–1 or ~0.5 ppmv CO2-e y–1, hence, the significant role of natural and relatively unmanaged ecosystems in slowing global warming and climate change. However, the impact of increasing N deposition on natural ecosystems is poorly understood, and further understanding is required regarding the use of drainage as a management tool, to reduce CH4 emissions from wetlands and to increase GHG sink from the restoration of degraded lands, including saline and sodic soils. Data on GHG fluxes from natural and relatively unmanaged ecosystems are further compounded by large spatial and temporal heterogeneity, limited sensitivity of current instruments, few and poor global distribution of monitoring sites and limited capacity of models that could integrate GHG fluxes across ecosystems, atmosphere and oceans and include feedbacks from biophysical variables governing these fluxes.


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