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Carbon stores: Three-quarters of crucial ecosystems are unprotected

Ecosystems such as forests and peatlands are vital stores for carbon, but less than a quarter of these areas worldwide have protected status



Earth



18 November 2021

Irrecoverable carbon in Earth?s ecosystems.

A map from a new study showing the locations of “irrecoverable carbon” worldwide

Monica L. Noon et al. (2021)

Only 23 per cent of Earth’s most vulnerable and crucial carbon storage ecosystems are in protected areas. But a study that pinpoints these carbon stores could help inform initiatives to keep them safe from development, while also protecting biodiversity.

Our planet stores carbon in a range of ecosystems, such as forests and peatlands. When humans degrade these ecosystems for commercial purposes, such as agriculture, large amounts of carbon may be released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Once released, it can take years, centuries or even millennia for carbon to be stored in such ecosystems again. The carbon that can’t be recovered by 2050, which is when the world must reach net-zero emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, is known as irrecoverable carbon.

To map the areas of irrecoverable carbon globally, Monica Noon at Conservation International, an environmental charity based in Virginia, and her colleagues aggregated several carbon storage data sets.

They found that half of the planet’s irrecoverable carbon is stored on just 3.3 per cent of its land. The highest concentrations of irrecoverable carbon reserves are in the peatlands and forests of the Amazon and Congo basin, the forests of North America and Siberia, and in mangroves and wetlands elsewhere. Less than a quarter of these lands fall under protected status.

By identifying the irrecoverable carbon hotspots, Noon hopes to encourage better nature-based solutions to tackle climate change and policies to manage and protect these crucial carbon storage ecosystems.

In the short term, this could include paying governments to reduce deforestation. In the long term, it could mean strengthening the rights of Indigenous people, who look after over a third of the land that contains irrecoverable carbon, and financing the expansion of protected areas around the world.

“Eighty-seven per cent of biodiversity overlaps with high irrecoverable carbon areas, which means that we can feasibly protect areas and kind of have a win-win situation when we’re looking at biodiversity and climate,” says Noon.

Journal reference: Nature Sustainability, DOI: 10.1038/s41893-021-00803-6

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