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Thermodynamic Contributions of Deforestation to

Global Climate Change

February 2008

By Andrew Bell, B. Eng, B. A.

The following paper examines the thermodynamic contributions to global
warming that arise from changes in forest cover around the world.

The basis behind the calculation is the endothermic chemical reaction of

photosynthesis. This reaction is well studied and proves to be a useful starting
point in the calculation of the energy absorbed by forested area every year. The
chemical balance of the photosynthetic reaction indicates that 235.4 kJ of solar
energy is absorbed for every six moles of CO2 that is used.

By using estimates for carbon uptake per unit of forest area, previously
determined1, the number of moles of carbon absorbed per km2 per year can be
calculated. Using 1000 mt of carbon absorbed per km2 per year reveals that
83.3 * 106 moles of carbon are absorbed per km2 per year.

The amount of CO2 absorbed per km2 per year is then used to put an energy
value to each square kilometer of forest cover. Using initial estimates this value
was determined to be 3.27 * 109 kJ per km2 per year.

Finally the energy value of forest cover is used to determine the yearly cost of
deforestation in global energy balance terms. A value of 1.20 * 106 km2 was
used in the sample calculations as it represents the amount of forest cover lost
between 1990 and 20052. The calculations reveal that 3.92 * 1015 kJ less solar
energy is absorbed by global forest cover every year due to the area of forests
cut down between 1990 and 2005.

The significance of this revelation is that the amount of extra solar energy
present in the atmosphere each year is enough to warm it by 0.00008 °C.
Another measure of significance is that the same amount of energy represents
0.001 % of the global energy gains between 1961 and 2003 and 0.001 % of the
global energy gains between 1995 and 20033.

The results of this paper raise questions about the nature of global warming and
the possibility that thermodynamic contributions to global climate change are
significant and merit further study.
The study of energy balance systems is usually done in chemical engineering. It
is used as a method of evaluating a variety of industrial processes. The study of
global energy balance is being carried out in an attempt to better understand the
changes in one variable in particular, atmospheric temperatures.

By using an energy balance framework the whole methodology used to approach

the problem of climate change is re-arranged. Carbon dioxide and other
greenhouse gas concentrations become single factors that contribute to the rate
of energy transfer between the atmosphere and space. Additionally many other
variables that affect the global energy balance begin to take on added

One of these variables is the rate of solar energy absorption by photosynthetic

organisms on the planets surface. This rate represents the amount of energy
that has passed from the sun, through the atmosphere to encounter biota that
use the energy contained in solar radiation to synthesize glucose.

This paper explores the rate of energy absorption by forest cover. The rate is
measured in kJ / km2 / year so that the end results can easily be converted into
°C / km2 / year.

The amount of energy absorbed per square kilometer of forest per year is used
at the end of the paper to demonstrate the energy cost of deforestation.
Because detailed numbers have been observed about the extent of degradation
to global forests every year the amount of extra energy in the atmosphere is
calculated (energy that was in past absorbed by the forests that have been

Finally the paper determines how substantial the atmospheric energy increases
are by calculating the associated change in atmospheric temperature.

Photosynthesis is a chemical reaction that has been long studied. It is the basis
of all life as the energy from solar radiation is absorbed and stored as chemical
potential energy in molecules of glucose.

The reaction is simply described by the chemical balance equation [1].

[1] 6 H2O + 6 CO2 + Energy -> 6 O2 + C6H12O6

When one mole of C6H12O6 is created 6 moles of CO2 are used along with 235.4
kJ of solar energy.
By extension this means that 39.2 kJ of solar energy are used for every mole of
CO2 that is removed from the atmosphere to be stored in glucose molecules.

Estimates for the rate of CO2 absorption given in metric tonnes per square
kilometer per year can easily be found in published research. For the purposes
of this paper the value of 1000 mt per year was used as noted by Joyce Murray
in her April 1992 paper “Global Warming: Policy Analysis and Proposal for a
Carbon Sink Silviculture Program”1.

The determination of the number of moles of CO2 absorbed can be done by

using the data on the weight of carbon absorbed per km 2 per year because the
carbon absorbed by forests is in the form of CO2. The calculations are:

[2] 1000 [mt C / (km2 * yr)] = 1.0 * 109 [g C / (km2 * yr)]

[3] 1.00 * 109 [g C / (km2 * yr)] = (1.0 * 109) / 12 [mol C / (km2 * yr)]
= 83.3 * 106 [mol C / (km2 * yr)]

This means that forested area absorbs at least 83.3 * 106 moles of CO2 per km2
per year.


Putting the number of moles CO2 absorbed per square kilometer of forested area
per year and the solar energy absorbed by photosynthesis per mole of CO 2
together yields an energy value for forest cover. This number represents the
energy absorbed per unit of forest cover (in this case a km2) per year. Equation
[4] shows how the calculation of the energy value of forest cover is done.

[4] 83.3 * 106 [mol CO2 / (km2 * yr)] * 39.2 [kJ / mol CO2] = 3.27 * 109 [kJ /
(km2 * yr)]

The energy value is a useful number to calculate as it is excellent for comparing

the yearly thermodynamic contributions to global energy content. The basis of
this calculation is to be able to understand how many kilojoules a given activity
(or inactivity) contributes to the global energy balance system every year.
Should a relationship between global warming and global energy content
variation prove to be measurable, correlations between yearly temperature
increase and energy intensive activities could be easily done.

The energy value of each km2 of forested area can now be used to assign an
energy cost to deforestation. This cost indicates the change in the yearly amount
of energy absorbed per km2 of forest that is cut down. Calculation [5] illustrates
how this is done.

[5] 3.27 * 109 [kJ / (km2 * yr)] * 1.20 * 106 [km2] = 3.92 * 1015 [kJ / yr]

For this calculation the value of 1.20 * 106 km2 represents the area of forest
destroyed globally between 1990 and 20052. Thus, due to the forestry zeal of
the time, the world energy balance will have to disperse an extra 3.92 * 1015 kJ of
energy every year.

In an effort to understand the significance of an increase of 3.92 * 1015 kJ per
year in global terms that value was used to illustrate how much the atmosphere
would warm if the energy was converted into heat. Additionally the increased
energy was compared to energy content observations recorded by the 4 th
Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was
released in 2007.

The energy / heat relation is straightforward and governed by well-established

laws of mass and energy conservation. Using these laws, as is shown in
equation [6], the energy change is equated to the mass of the atmosphere, the
specific heat capacity of air, and the change in temperature. This calculation
reveals that the amount of energy added to the global system because of the
deforestation of 1990 to 2005 (3.92 * 1015 kJ) is enough to raise the atmospheric
temperature by 0.00008 °C per year, or 0.02%of the temperature change in 2000
(the highest increase in recorded global temperature change4).

[6] Change in Temperature of the atmosphere


Change in Energy Content / (Mass of Atmosphere * specific heat capacity

of Atmosphere)

0.00008 [°C / yr] = 3.92 * 1015 [kJ / yr] / (5.13 * 1015 [kg] * 1.005
[kJ / (kg*°C])

The change in energy content of the global closed system between 1961 and
2003 was noted to have been 1.59 * 1020 [kJ]3, while between 1993 and 2003 it
was recorded to have been 8.9 * 1019 [kJ]3. This amount of energy change
corresponded to increases in global temperatures of 0.28 °C and 0.24 °C
respectively5. The amount of energy added to the global system because of the
deforestation of 1990 to 2005 (3.92 * 1015 [kJ/ yr]) would have consistently
represented 0.001 % of the energy change in the global system.
The relationship between the observed values and the values calculated in this
paper are close enough to indicate that the energy absorption of photosynthesis
is significant to the study of climate change.

The amount of energy absorbed by photosynthesis, a well known chemical
reaction, can be aggregated with simple models to understand the role that the
biological process of synthesizing glucose is relevant to the understanding of a
global energy balance system.

The possibility that global energy content is associated with global temperature
change, as noted by the inclusion of section in the IPCC 4th Assessment
Report, means that the absorption of solar energy by the bio-sphere, as is
partially studied in this paper, is relevant.

For this reason it would be beneficial to have a solid understanding of the amount
of CO2 absorbed by forests and other photosynthetic organisms each year, how
the biological land / sea cover changes, what happens to solar energy as land
cover changes, and how / how much solar energy is converted into heat.
Assumption – Forest cover absorbs carbon at a rate of 1000 mt per km 2 per year

This assumption is based on the number used by Joyce Murray in her paper on
forests being used as carbon sinks1. Further study has found values between
450 and 1800 mt per km2 per year depending on the type of forest being
studied6. Therefore the calculations in this paper aim for the middle ground in
their estimates about how much energy is being absorbed by forests each year.

Assumption – The mass of the atmosphere is 5.13 * 1015 kg.

This value was found on the wikipeidia web site at the time of writing and was
determine to be accurate enough for the purposes of this paper. Further
refinement of the value would no doubt add to the accuracy of a total global
energy balance model.

[1] Joyce Murray, “Global Warming: Policy Analysis and Proposal for a Carbon
Sink Silviculture Program”, A research project submitted in partial fulfillment of
the requirements for the degree of Masters of Business Administration in the
Faculty of Business Administration, SFU, April 1992, page 18

[2] “State of the World’s Forests 2007”, Food and Agriculture Organization of the
United Nations, Rome 2007, page xi

[3] IPCC 4th report, World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations
Environment Program section , page 393

[4] IPCC 4th report, World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations
Environment Program section , page 101

[5] IPCC 4th report, World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations
Environment Program section , page 243

[6] Thomas J. Goreau, “Control of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide”, Global

Environmental Change, March 1992, pages 5 – 11.

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Other Papers on Energy Balance

“Heat Storage and Anthropogenic Heat Flux in Relation to the Energy Balance of
a Central European City Centre”, B. Offerle, C. S. B. Grimmond, K. Fortuniak,
International Journal of Climatology, 25: 1405-1419 (2005), DOI: 10.1002/joc.1198.

“Simulating Urban Heat Island Effects Using an Urban Scheme Coupled with
Global Climate / Land-Surface Models”, Menglin Jin and Christa D. Peters-
Lidard, Journal of Hydrometeorology, 2005.