The plants and soil organisms in ecosystems remove carbon dioxide (CO2) – the most significant greenhouse gas – from the atmosphere and store it in their tissues, helping to slow the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the steps we have taken to increase production of food and other commodities from ecosystems have had a net negative impact on their capacity to store carbon.
This is principally the result of converting forests to agricultural lands; agricultural lands support less vegetation overall and therefore store less carbon.
Such land-use changes are in fact an important source of carbon emissions,contributing more than 20 percent of global annual carbon emissions.
Ecosystems nonetheless still store significant carbon.
How we manage these ecosystems – whether we promote afforestation and other carbon-storing strategies or increase the forest conversion rate – will have a significant impact on future increases or decreases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.