Clearing natural forests in Australia would pose a greater danger to the global climate than previously thought because they hold three times as much carbon as estimated, a report released Tuesday said.
The Australian National University report warns that all nations, not just those in the developing world, should prevent the clearing of their forests because this could release huge amounts of harmful carbon into the atmosphere.
"From a scientific perspective, green carbon accounting and protection of the natural forests in all nations should become part of a comprehensive approach to solving the climate change problem," the report said.
While current international talks focussed on reducing the destruction of forests in developing countries only, the forests of nations such as Australia, Canada, Russia and the US also needed to be protected, it added.
"Protecting the carbon in Australia's and the world's natural forests is no longer an option -- it is a necessity," report co-author Professor Brendan Mackey said.
"If natural forests continue to be cleared and degraded then the carbon dioxide released will significantly increase concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."
The scientists found that unlogged natural eucalypt forests in Australia's southeast stored about 640 tonnes of carbon per hectare.
That compares with the 217 tonnes per hectare estimated by the world's leading scientific body on the issue, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In some areas, the storage levels are estimated to be ten times higher than previously thought.
Mackey said the findings highlighted the need for a new approach to account for carbon stored in natural forests.
"To date, in climate change discussions in the forest sector, all the attention has been on reforestation and afforestation," he told AFP.
"At the Bali climate change conference (in December) everybody kind of woke up and realised that natural forests store a vast amount of carbon and that we can't afford to allow further emissions from deforestation and forest degeneration because these are on top of fossil fuel burning."
Mackey said deforestation accounted for 17.5 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions globally.