Methane Emissions From Terrestrial Plants


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 In a recent issue of Nature Keppler et al. [2006] report the discovery that terrestrial plants emit CH4 under aerobic conditions. Until now it was thought that bacterial decomposition of plant material under anaerobic conditions, such as in wetlands and water flooded rice paddies, is the main process leading to emissions from terrestrial ecosystems. In a first attempt to upscale these measurements, the authors estimate that global total emissions may be 149 Tg CH4/yr (62-236 Tg CH4/yr), with the main contribution estimated from tropical forests and grasslands (107 Tg CH4/yr with a range of 46-169 Tg CH4/yr).

If confirmed, this new source of emission would constitute a significant fraction of the total global methane sources (estimated 500-600 Tg CH4/yr for present day total natural and anthro-pogenic sources) and have important implications for the global CH4 budget. To accommodate it within the present budget some sources would need to be re-assessed downwards and/or some sinks re-assessed upwards. Furthermore, also considering that methane is a ~23 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, the possible feedbacks of these hitherto unknown CH4 emissions on global warming and their impacts on greenhouse gases (GHG) mitigation strategies need to be carefully evaluated.

The merit of the paper is without doubt related to the remarkable discovery of a new process of methane emissions active under aerobic conditions. However, we think that the applied approach of scaling up emissions from the leaf level to global totals by using only few measured data (mainly from herbaceous species) and the Net Primary Productivity of the main biomes is scientifically questionable and tends to overestimate considerably the global estimates, especially for forest biomes.

Furthermore, some significant constraints on the upper limit of the global natural CH4 emissions arise from the pre-industrial CH4 budget. Pre-industrial atmospheric CH4 mixing ratios have been measured precisely from ice cores and it can be estimated that the CH4 lifetime (mainly OH sink) has not changed by more than 20% between pre-industrial times (year 1800) and today. Assuming a lower limit for CH4 emissions from wetlands of 90 Tg CH4/yr would imply an upper limit of ~100 Tg CH4/yr for the total global emissions from plants.
The paper raised an intensive discussion whether the CH4 emissions from plants could significantly reduce the climatic benefit gained through carbon sequestration of afforestation / reforestation programs. However, we estimated that the CH4 plant emissions would reduce this benefit by only a few percent as maximum. This is fully consistent with the clarification provided by Keppler et al. in a subsequent press release of the Max Planck Society (18 January 2006), where they stated that 'for climate, the benefits gained by reforestation programs would be lessened by between 1 and 4 % due to methane emissions from the plants themselves”.

Finally, the discovery of CH4 emissions from plants is raising the question about potential impacts on top-down estimates, which derive total CH4 emissions from atmospheric observations and inverse modelling. However, in temperate regions this effect is likely to be relatively small, and therefore results of inverse modelling studies performed on the European scale are likely to be influenced relatively little only.

The arguments presented here are discussed in some more detail in the appendix.

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