The Australian landscape absorbed as much as one third of the carbon emitted by fossil fuels in Australia over the past two decades, according to a new study conducted by the CSIRO.

The study also found that Australia exported 2.5 times more fossil fuels in 2009-10 than it directly produced in that period.

The results come from a three-year study published in the journal Biogeosciences, which saw researchers quantify how much land carbon is lost or gained through soil ‘breathing in response to variable levels of carbon dioxide.

The project centres on the variability of carbon flows for the past two decades, and how this period compares with the past 100 years.

Lead author, Dr Vanessa Haverd said the increase in plant production through carbon dioxide fertilisation is larger in the warmer regions of the continent. "For Australia as a whole, increased carbon dioxide has caused a 15 per cent increase in plant production over the last two decades, relative to pre-industrial times," she said.

Dr Haverd said study data will help the understanding of how carbon stored in the Australian landscape responds to climate variability – the swings between drought and flood.

"It is important to know that carbon stored in the land during periods of high plant growth may disappear again during the next drought," Dr Haverd said.

"Understanding any trends and changes in fire regime or intensity, particularly in the savanna fires of Northern Australia, is important for quantifying the impact of fire on the net carbon balance," she said.

Other results include:

  • On average 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon is taken up by plants per year (1990-2011).
  • Across Australia, grassy vegetation (dominant in dry and savanna regions) accounts for 56% of carbon uptake while woody vegetation accounts for 44% .
  • In wet (high-growth) years, the Australian biosphere 'breathes in' a vast amount of carbon from the atmosphere, exceeding the total of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, while in dry years, the biosphere 'breathes out' a nearly equal amount of carbon back to the atmosphere – this variability is associated with Australia's highly variable climate; and 
  • Carbon uptake from 1990-2011 was high compared with the rest of the twentieth century due largely to carbon dioxide fertilisation.