A Review on Carbon Sequestration in Malaysian Forest Soils: Opportunities
Abdullahi Ahmed Chinade,
Shaharuddin Mohamed Ismail
Carbon sequestration in forest soils is considered important for mitigation
of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for improving forest health and land
productivity. The measurement of soil carbon stock is also necessary for carbon
inventory and calibration of carbon simulation models. Mitigation of carbon
dioxide (CO2) (the main Green-House Gas (GHG)) in the atmosphere
can be accomplished by either reducing its emission or by sequestering it in
biomass and in soil. Malaysias
large forested area, estimated at 17.7 M ha, offers an opportunity for carbon
sequestration in soil. The forest ecosystem of Peninsular Malaysia alone, is
reported to contain 23.48 Million tonnes of Carbon (or 86.17M to CO2
equivalent) and a carbon sequestration potential of 4 tonnes of carbon ha-1
year-1. However, this estimate excludes soil carbon stock despite
the fact that the soil carbon component accounts for 36-46% of the total carbon
in the forest ecosystem. This study reviews the opportunities and challenges
facing carbon sequestration in Malaysian forest soils.
Received: August 28, 2014;
Accepted: October 28, 2014;
Published: March 26, 2015
Soil carbon sequestration is the process of transferring atmospheric CO2
into stable pools of the soil, in the form of organic carbon, that would otherwise
have been released into the atmosphere (Lal, 2008).
According to IPCC (2001), World soils have the potential
of sequestering 0.4-0.8 Pg year-1. Carbon sequestration in soils
of forest ecosystems is considered important for mitigation of climate change
by reducing carbon dioxide (a major green house gases) concentration in the
atmosphere (Lal, 2004, 2008;
Batjes, 1999; Swift, 2001) and sustainable forestland
management (Batjes, 2013; Ravindranath
and Ostwald, 2008). This is because soil carbon constitute 50% of soil organic
matter which is responsible for forest health and productivity. Determination
of soil carbon sequestration has also become a very important exercise for comprehensive
carbon invetory for different purposes (Ravindranath and
Ostwald, 2008) and also for calibration of carbon models (Ngo
et al., 2013).
There is significant amount of carbon in the soil of forest ecosystems globally
ranging from 36% (FAO., 2001), 40% (Dixon
et al., 1994) to 45.6% (FAO., 2006). In Malaysia,
valuation and carbon inventory reports for the forestry sector largely excludes
contribution of soil carbon (Kato et al., 1978;
Abdul Rashid et al., 2009). Considering the significant
amount of carbon held in forest soil (36-46%), the carbon held in the forest
ecosystems may have been under-estimated and under-valued.
This study reviews the importance of soil carbon sequestration in climate change
mitigation, sustainable forest management. The study also emphasized the need
for proper measurement of the soil carbon stock for a comprehensive Green House
Gas (GHG) inventory. The opportunities and challenges associated with estimating
and reporting soil carbon stock and sequestration capacity in Malaysian forests
are also highlighted. The objective is to foster increased recognition of the
soil as an important component of the forest ecosystem and also to encourage
development of strategies and management practices that would specifically enhance
carbon sequestration in forest soils.
CARBON STOCK IN FOREST SOILS
Carbon is stored in forest ecosystems mainly in biomass and soil and to a lesser
extent in coarse woody debris (Ngo et al., 2013).
The carbon stock in forest soils play a large role in global carbon cycle due
to the large expanse of forest ecosystems estimated at 4.1 billion hectares
globally (Dixon and Wisniewski, 1995). It has been
estimated that, gloabally, the forest ecosystem contain about 1,240 Pg C (Dixon
et al., 1994). Out of this amount, the plants (vegetation) contain
about 536 Pg C while the soil is believed to contain up to 704 Pg of C. This
is a very significant amount.
Globally, the soil contains two thirds of the total terrestrial carbon pool
estimated at 1500 Gt C (Batjes, 2013; Lal,
2004). The forest ecosystems contains more than 70% of global Soil Organic
Carbon (SOC) and forest soils are believed to hold about 43% of the carbon in
the forest ecosystem to 1 m depth (Jobbagy and Jackson,
2000). In Malaysia, Saner et al. (2012) reported
that the soil contains 23.5% of the carbon in Malua Forest Reserve, Sabah Malaysian
Borneo. Neto et al. (2012) also reported that
the soil contains 17% (30 cm depth) to 52% (3 m depth) of total carbon in Ayer
Hitam Forest, Selangor, Peninsula Malaysia. Ngo et al.
(2013) also reported that the soil contains 32.9% (3 m depth) of the total
carbon stock of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in neighbouring Singapore.
Table 1 shows the percentage organic carbon in soils of forest
ecosystems as reported by different authors.
However, unfortunately this high carbon content inherent in natural forest
soils is easily depleted by decrease in the amount of biomass (above and below
ground) returned to the soil, changes in soil moisture and temperature regimes
and degree of decomposability of soil organic matter (due to difference in C:N
ratio and lignin content) (Post and Kwon, 2000).
||Percentage organic carbon in soil in forest ecosystems as
reported by different authors
Anthropogenic activities such as conversion of forests to agricultural land
also deplete the Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) stock by 20-25% (Lal,
2005). Deforestation is reported to emit about 1.6-1.7 Pg C year-1
(about 20% of anthropogenic emission) (Watson et al.,
ROLE OF SOIL CARBON IN FOREST ECOSYSTEM
The carbon in soil plays significant roles in the forest ecosystems. Some of
Mitigation of climate change: The continuous increase in the concentration
of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs in the atmosphere largely
due to anthropogenic sources is believed to be responsible for climatic changes
and related consequences being experienced across the globe (IPCC.,
This situation has generated interest in developing strategies for reducing
GHGs build up in the atmosphere. In the forest ecosystem, mitigation is accomplished
either by reducing the amount GHGs, especially, CO2 in the atmosphere
or by increasing their removal (Ravindranath and Ostwald,
Out of the approximately 8.7 Gt C year-1 being emitted into the
atmosphere, from anthropogenic sources, only 3.8 Gt C year-1 remains
(Denman et al., 2007; Lal,
2008). The unaccounted difference of 4.9 Gt C year-1 is believed
to be sequestered in terrestrial (oceans, forests, soils etc) bodies which is
referred to as the missing sink (Battle et
al., 2000; Fung, 2000; Pacala
and Socolow, 2004). This realization has generated interest on the potential
of terrestrial sector (including soil) to sequester carbon in long-lived pools
thereby reducing the amount that is present in the atmosphere (Stockmann
et al., 2013; Lal, 2004; Post
and Kwon, 2000; Guo and Gifford, 2002).
Sustainable forest land management: Apart from reducing the concentration
of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, soil carbon sequestration also
complements efforts geared at improving land productivity. This is because all
strategies that sequester carbon in soil also improve soil quality and land
productivity by increasing the organic matter content of the soil. Organic matter
improves soils structural stability, water-holding capacity, nutrients
availability and favourable environment to soil organisms (Lal,
Carbon sequestration activities offers an opportunity for regaining lost productvity
especially under agricultural systems. It has been reported that managed ecosystems
such as agriculture have lost 30-55% of their original soil organic carbon stock
since conversion (Batjes, 2013). The lost productivity
of agricultural and degraded lands together offers an opportunity for recovering
50-60% of the original carbon content through adoption of carbon sequestration
strategies (Lal, 2004).
Ancillary benefits: Apart from climate change mitigation and improving
forest land productivity, carbon sequestration in forest soils also have several
ancillary benefits. Some of these include: Improvement in water holding capacity
and infiltration, provision of substrate for soil organisms, serving as a source
and reservoir of important plant nutrients, improvement of soil structural stability
among others (Lal, 2004). To further buttress the importance
of ancillary benefits of soil carbon sequestration, a research conducted by
Sparling et al. (2006) indicated that the environmental
benefits associated with soil carbon sequestration is 40-70% higher than the
productivity benefits (Stockmann et al., 2013).
Based on these reasons, therefore, any policy, strategy or practice that increase
soil carbon sequestration also generates these benefits.
Carbon inventories: The obligation on countries that are parties to
the UNFCC to periodically report their national greenhouse inventory requires
a comprehensive estimation and valuation of all carbon sink and sources in the
terrestrial and other sectors. These estimation and valuation of carbon in the
forest ecosystem will be incomplete if the contribution of soil carbon is excluded
due to its large percentage (36-46%). Carbon inventory is a process of estimating
changes in the stocks (emission and removals) of carbon in soil and biomass
periodically for various reasons. Some of the projects that require carbon inventory
include: Aforestation and reforestation projects under the clean development
mechanism, national greenhouse inventory to fulfill reporting obligation by
parties to the UNFCC, sustainable forest management, land conservation and development
projects etc. (Ravindranath and Ostwald, 2008).
National greenhouse inventory: Countries that are signatories to the
UNFCC are required to prepare national greenhouse inventories periodically and
report them to the UNFCC. Article 3.3 of the Kyoto Protocol provides that GHG
emissions by sources and removal by sinks associated with those actvities shall
be reported in a transparent and verifiable manner and reviewed in accordance
with Article 7 and 8. The GHG inventory for the purpose of national inventory
reporting involves estimation of removals and emissions of GHG gases (such as
CO2, CH4, N2O). The inventories are rendered
periodically (3-5 years interval) in the form of national communications to
the UNFCC. Malaysia have rendered two national communications so far in 2000
and in 2009 (MNRE., 2011). These carbon inventories estimated
carbon from biomass using allometric equations and conversion factors. Both
reports had overlooked the contribution of soil carbon despite its large percentage
in forest ecosystems:
||Climate change mitigation projects: Carbon inventories
are needed to determine the baseline carbon stock and the project scenario
under climate change mitigation projects. Some of the project actvitites
carried out to enhance carbon sequestration or reduce carbon emission include:
afforestation, reforestation, agroforestry, urban forestry, shelterbelts,
biofuel projects etc (Ravindranath and Ostwald, 2008).
The purpose of the carbon inventory carried out for these projects is to
estimate and monitor incremental carbon emission avoided or carbon sequestered
as a result of the given project, programme or policy initiative
||Clean development mechanism projects: These projects are also required
to estimate and project the carbon stock likely to be sequestered as a result
of the project over the project duration
||Global Environment Facility (GEF) projects: Carbon inventories
are also required for GEF interventions such as the integrated ecosystem
management and sustainable land management projects (Ravindranath
and Ostwald, 2008). The inventory is conducted to assess the impact
of the GEF project activities on carbon stocks and changes in soil and biomass
of the project area
||Forest development projects: Carbon inventories are needed for
forest development and conservation projects in order to estimate the
biomass or timber production as wells as increase in soil organic matter
as a result of the project (Ravindranath and Ostwald,
In all the above cases, assessment of the soil carbon stock and changes is
necessary alongside the above ground component. This underscores the importance
of soil carbon assessesment in terrestrial ecosystems such as forestry.
BARRIERS TO CARBON SEQUESTRATION IN FOREST SOILS
Although, there are a lot of opportunites in leveraging carbon stock and sequestration
potential in the soil of forest ecosystem, numerous challenges also exist in
ensuring this is achieved. Some of these challenges include.
Difficulties in measurement and verification: The stock of carbon in
forest soils is difficult and very expensive to measure. Changes within the
range of ten percent are very difficult to detect due to sampling errors, small-scale
variability and uncertainties with measures and analysis (Trumbore
and Torn, 2003). According to Ravindranath and Ostwald
(2008), the annual incremental stock of carbon in soil is very small usually
within 0.25-1.0 t ha-1. It is even more difficult to account for
little gains or losses in soil carbon at various scales due to methodological
difficulties such as monitoring, verification, sampling and depth (Swift,
2001). Even if these small changes (gains or losses) are detected, it is
not easy to link such changes to forest management or land use practice in a
given context. Soil is very variable horizontally and vertically a lot of technical
expertise is required in measuring its carbon stock or sequestration capacity
(Swift, 2001). Small changes in carbon stock takes
a very long period to occur due to a very slow process. The capacity of the
soil to sequester and retain carbon is also finite as it reaches a steady state
after sometime. The carbon sequestered is in various pools with different turnover
periods ranging from few years to thousands of years (Walcott
et al., 2009; Swift, 2001; Lal,
2008; Ravindranath and Ostwald, 2008).
Despite these challenges however, newer methods are being developed to make
measurement, monitoring and verification of soil carbon easier, faster and more
accurate (Stockmann et al., 2013; Capon
et al., 2010; Walcott et al., 2009).
In particular, the prospects of in-situ measurement techniques of soil carbon
by using Near-Infra Red spectroscopy (NIR) and Mid-Infrared spectroscopy (MIR)
technologies may address some of the challenges faced in measurement, monitoring
and verification (Stockmann et al., 2013).
Carbon pools: Sequestered carbon exists in the soil in different pools
with varying degree of residence time in the ecosystem. These pools include:
||Passive, recalcitrant or refractory pool: Organic carbon
held in this pool has a very long residence time ranging from decades to
thousands of years
||Active, labile or fast pool: Carbon held in this pool stays in
the soil for much shorter period due to fast decomposition. The residence
time normally ranges from one day to a year
||Slow, stable or humus pool: Carbon held in this pool has long turnover
time due to slow rate of decomposition. The residence time typically ranges
from one year to a decade
Soil carbon sequestration for GHG mitigation can be successful only if the
carbon is withdrawn from the atmosphere in large quantity and held in long-lived
pool (Walcott et al., 2009). However, this will
require investment and adoption of land use and forest management practices
that may have economic disadvantage to the forest owner. In addition, reliable
and consistent methods are needed to isolate and allocate soil organic carbon
into the different pools efficiently (Walcott et al.,
Permanence: Another challenge of carbon sequestration in forest soil
is non-permanence of the sequestered carbon as it can be released back to the
atmosphere as easily as it is gained as a result of decomposition or mineralization.
It is for this reason that sequestered carbon is considered a short-term option
for removing carbon from the atmosphere. The rate of carbon loss depends on
several climatic, land use and management factors.
Separation: It is very difficult to isolate and differentiate the portion
of carbon sequestered in the soil as result of project activities and that which
occured naturally. The principle of separation in forest carbon projects require
that carbon sequestered or GHGs emission prevented as a result of the project
be distinguished from that which would have occured due to natural causes. This
is because it has been suggested that changes in climate may have a positive
feedback on carbon sequestration as increased temperature is expected to lead
to increased Net Primary Productivity (NPP). The higher the NPP the more carbon
is transferred to stable pools in the soils (Kirschbaum,
2000). However, a counter argument suggests that changing climate will reduce
the carbon content of the soil as increased temperature is likely to accelerate
mineralization of organic matter which in turn may lead to release of carbon
from the soil into the atmosphere (Sitch et al.,
2008). Methods are therefore needed that can differentiate naturally sequestered
carbon from that captured due to human management (Walcott
et al., 2009).
Additionality: A key obstacle to soil carbon sequestration in particular
and carbon sequestration in the land use sector in general is the additionality
requirement. The additionality principle pre-suppose that the carbon sequestered
should be additional to the business as usual scenario. This means that, the
amount of carbon sequestered by the project would not have occured without the
project. On the basis of this requirement, pre-existing revenue-generating projects
are automatically excluded (Ringius, 2002). This is
a big barrier in the forestry sector, as the opportunity cost of alternative
land use far outweighs potential revenue from carbon offsets.
Leakages: Another key barrier is the tendency of activities aimed at
sequestering carbon or preventing emission in one area leading to more emission
in another area. It is therefore essential to ensure carbon sequestration or
emission preventioin activities do not create more forest conversion elsewhere.
Leakage can be minimized in the contract design by paying for carbon stock sequestered
over time, reducing payments ab initio based on estimated risk of potential
leakage and leasing carbon credits or debits for finite periods (Murray
et al., 2007).
Trading barriers: A number of risks and uncertainties limiting the inclusion
of soil carbon in trading scheme were identfied by Capon
et al. (2010). These include difficulties in packaging soil carbon
in units that could be traded and high transaction costs due to monitoring and
verification. In addition there is a need for specialist knowledge on determining
the potential and attainable carbon that could be sequestered by a given soil
types in a particular location and time. A degraded soil for instance is expected
to sequester more carbon than an undegraded soil.
STRATEGIES OF INCREASING CARBON STOCK IN FOREST SOILS
Although more attention seems to be given to strategies of enhancing carbon
stock and sequestration capacity in agricultural soils, however, several studies
have also reported about proven strategies to enhance C stock and sequestration
in forest soils (Batjes, 1999). The difficulty associated
with building C stock and enhancing C sequestration in forest soils is associated
with the fact that there is more carbon in the biomass than soil in most forest
ecosystems unlike agricultural systems where soil carbon is more than biomass
carbon. Despite these challenges however, it is worth noting that all strategies
that build biomass and increase organic matter content in the soil also build
up the soil carbon stock and sequestration capacity (Batjes,
Some strategies that enhance carbon sequestration in forest soils include:
Aforestation, reforestation, natural regeneration, enrichment planting, increasing
the carbon stock of existing forests using several silvilcultural techniques
among others (Batjes, 1999; Boer,
2001; Jandl et al., 2007). Most of these strategies
increases the carbon stock in biomass through photosynthesis and indirectly
builds up below ground and soil carbon through increased deposition of organic
matter. According to Post and Kwon (2000), organic carbon
level of soil can be improved by increasing the amount of organic matter input,
changing the decomposability of organic matter, placing organic matter in deep
layer and enhancing better physical protection of the soil aggregates or formation
of organo-mineral complexes.
MALAYSIAN FOREST ECOSYSTEM AND SOIL CARBON SEQUESTRATION
Malaysia covers an area of 329,758 km2 and it comprises the Penisular
Malaysia located on the southern part of Asia and the States of Sabah and Sarawak
located on the north-western parts of Borneo Island.
The country has vast forested land that have the potential of sequestering
carbon both in biomass and in the soil. Statistics from Malaysian Forestry Department
indicate that, Malaysia has a total land area of 32.85 M ha. Out of this total
land area, forested area acccount for 17.77 M ha and non-forested area constitutes
the remaining 15.08 M ha (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, 2011).
As at 2007, natural forests occupy about 18.56 million ha in Malaysia which
is about 57% of the total land area (Thang, 2007).
Although Malaysian forests are typically dominated by dipterocarps species,
however, topography seems to have a profound influence on the vegetation distribution.
From sea level up to 300 m above sea level (asl) the forest types include mangroves,
peat swamps and lowland dipterocarp. At 750 asl hill and upper dipterocarp species
dominate while lower montane and upper montane species are found around 1300-1500
asl (Fig. 1).
||Map of Malaysia
The soils of Malaysia comprises sedentary and coastal alluvial soils (Nieuwolt
et al., 1982). The sedentary soils consist of strongly weathered
kaolinite based clay minerals developed from igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic
parent materials. These soils are moslty found in the interior regions of the
country and are classified as Ultisols and Oxisols. The alluvial soils are found
mostly around the coastal peripheries and are classified as Entisols, Inceptisols
and Spodosols (Chee and Peng, 2002). The alluvial soils
comprises clay loam soils and are found in the west coast of the peninsula and
some parts of Sarawak. About 2.7 M ha of peat and organic soils, acid sulphate
soils are found along the west coast plains of the peninsula and Sarawak river
while bris (sand) soils are found along the east coast of the peninsula
and coastal areas of Sabah. About 72% of the Malaysian land surface is covered
by Ultisols and Oxisols (Jusop and Ishak, 2010).
Scope for carbon sequesteration in malaysian forest soils: The vast
forest area (17.7 M ha) in Malaysia presents an opportunity for carbon sequestration
in soils for the different reasons discussed above. These soils could sequester
and retain carbon in stable pools, just like the above ground and below ground
components, if the right strategies, practices and policies are adopted.
Apart from the forested area, a large swathe of non-forested areas could also
be converted or rehabilatated to forested area for carbon sequestration. Example
of such areas include abandoned tin mining fields, coastal dunes, landfills,
urban forests among others. Research has shown that an estimated 11% of the
total land area of Peninsular Malaysia is eligible for establishment of new
forest for carbon sequestration purpose (Theseira et al.,
Adoption of strategies to enhance carbon sequesteration or reduce emission
in forest soils may make Payment Carbon Sequestration Services (PCSS) mechanism
more viable by raising the value of carbon stock in the forest ecosystem. It
has been reported that the forestry sector in Peninsular Malaysia has a carbon
sequestration potential of 4 t of Carbon ha-1 year-1 and
contains an estimated 23.48 M t of Carbon (or 86.17 M t CO2 equivalent)
(Shamsudin et al., 2009). However, this figure
does not include C uptake in soils clearly indicating that the carbon sequestered
in the forestry sector in Malaysia is under reported due to non-inclusion of
the soil component. The soil, holds 36-46% of the total carbon found in the
forest ecosystem and therefore neglecting that component may have misrepresented
the true value of carbon held in the forest ecosystem (FAO.,
2001, 2006; Dixon et al.,
1994; Jobbagy and Jackson, 2000).
Proper accounting and incorporation of the soil carbon in forest carbon stock
estimates may make Payment for Carbon Sequestration Service (PCSS) through A/R
CDM (afforestation and reforestation programme of the clean development mechanism)
and REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) mechanisms
Malaysia has continued to retain 55% of its 33 M ha total land area under forest
cover as required by the National Forestry Act (MNRE., 2011).
This commitment has been reiterated in various international environmental fora
such as the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil of 1992 and at the 2009 COP
15 in Copenhagen, Denmark (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, 2011.
At COP 15, Malaysia declared its policy commitment of reducing GHG emission
by 40% of 2005 levels before 2020 (MNRE., 2011). This
policy climate offers an opportunity for carbon sequestration in the biomass
and soil of the forest ecosystem.
There is still the problem posed by the additionality requirement of the CDM,
however which limits carbon credit only to forests established after 1990. The
international carbon trading rules also excludes old growth forests from carbon
offsets which put Malaysia at a disadvantage because the country has been conserving
its forest decades before these rules were set. Despite this restriction, the
vast forested areas of the country still renders environmental services to the
World by continuing to hold carbon and therefore reducing the amount in the
atmosphere (Shamsudin et al., 2009).
The knowledge of carbon stock and sequestration potential of forest soil is
vital for accurate reporting of the national carbon inventory, for designing
of possible carbon payment schemes and sustainable forest management. The soil
and vegetation hold much promise in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in
the atmosphere through sequestration at least for some time pending when more
reliable alternatives are found. Sequestration of carbon in forest soil also
improves forest health and productivity even if proceeds from carbon revenue
remain unattractive. However, the contribution of forest soils to total carbon
stock and sequestration potentials of the forest ecosystem is not well recognized,
especially in Malaysia which have led to under-reporting and under-valuing of
mitigation potential in the forestry sector. More fundamentally, we have also
shown that there are challenges associated with the concept and practical implementation
of soil carbon sequestration in countries such as Malaysia and have discussed
how these may be overcome.
To make soil carbon sequestration a viable policy alternative in climate change
mitigation and sustainable land management, more research is needed and flexibility
is required in the rules governing carbon offsets in the conventional and voluntary
markets. It is also necessary to increase the carbon price by factoring other
ecosystem services rendered by soil carbon in the valuation. There is also a
need to develop forest management practices that enhance carbon stock and sequestration
potential in forest soil. This may make carbon trading through A/R CDM or REDD
economically feasible and at the same time improve forest health and productivity.
The authors wish to acknowledge the support received from National University
of Malaysia (UKM) through grant number UKM-AP-2011-24 and also ERGS/1/2013/SS07/UKM/01/1.
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