New Research Identifies Carbon-Rich Lands That Are Essential to Avoiding Climate Catastrophe
Researchers Call for the Safeguarding of Earth’s “Irrecoverable Carbon”
Arlington, Va. (March 31, 2020) – We know that the world needs to “keep it in the ground” when it comes to fossil fuels. Now new research in the journal Nature Climate Change from Conservation International and six other organizations shows that some land areas, if destroyed or degraded, would release so much carbon that they must be protected if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Led by Conservation International scientists Allie Goldstein and Will Turner, the research establishes that some ecosystems contain “irrecoverable carbon” — vast stores of carbon that are potentially vulnerable to release from human activity and, if lost, could not be restored by 2050, the year by which we need reach net-zero emissions to limit the risk of warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Globally, these lands contain more than 260 billion tonnes of irrecoverable carbon and include ecosystems such as mangroves, peatlands, old-growth forests and marshes. Irrecoverable carbon spans six of the seven continents, including vast stores in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, Indonesia, Northwestern North America, Southern Chile, Southeastern Australia and New Zealand. If released into the atmosphere via ecosystem destruction, that carbon would result in 26 times the global fossil fuel emissions of 2019.
“Simply put, these ecosystems serve as carbon stores that we can’t afford to lose. Just like fossil fuels, their emissions would be inherited by many future generations so we must work now, collectively, to keep this carbon in the ground,” said Goldstein. “Climate change impacts such as drought, sea level rise, and fire are making many ecosystems and their carbon more difficult to manage, but we have a window of time during which the protection of these irrecoverable carbon stores is still largely within our control: we can decide whether to safeguard or destroy them, and whether to help them adapt.”
To identify Earth’s living carbon reserves, the paper examined 14 major ecosystems and ranked them by their average irrecoverable carbon stores per hectare. Tropical peatlands hold the most irrecoverable carbon (450 Mg C ha-1), followed by mangroves (335 Mg C ha-1) and boreal and temperate peatlands (135 Mg C ha-1). Old-growth tropical rainforests and old-growth temperate forests also store considerable irrecoverable carbon (just under 100 Mg C ha-1 on average).
“Think of these places as Earth’s living carbon reserves. These ecosystems have taken 30, 70, sometimes hundreds of years to soak up this much carbon. But humanity is destroying them at an alarming rate, releasing more than 3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases each year,” said Turner. “If we’re going to succeed in avoiding the most dangerous climate change impacts we will have to stop the loss of these forests and wetlands as an immediate priority.”
Johan Rockström, Conservation International’s chief scientist and an author of the study, said “We have growing evidence that the final battle ground whether we fail or succeed in delivering the Paris Climate Agreement of holding the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming line is not only whether we are able to get off fossil fuels, it is also whether we are able to safeguard carbon stores in nature. Here, we provide the first global assessment of the ecosystems that hold our future in their hands.” Rockström is also Executive Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
The paper also categorizes ecosystems according to the human actions that can be taken to directly influence stored carbon, either by decreasing carbon stores through destruction and degradation or increasing carbon stores through conservation and policy.
“We found that ecosystems in the tropics with older forests or deep, carbon-rich soils are some of the most irrecoverable carbon stores. They are being destroyed, but we know how to protect them through conservation and improved land management,” said Juan Carlos Ledezma, a scientist at Conservation International Bolivia and an author of the paper.
“We have a shrinking window in which to act and must target government, corporate and civil action towards the highest priority landscapes. This research helps identify the places that we must protect to keep the climate crisis in check,” says Susan Cook-Patton, an author of the study and forest restoration scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
“Working in partnership with local communities, we have the chance to help many countries reach their climate change goals in a cost-effective and nature-first way,” said Goldstein. “A commitment to conservation will not only slow global warming, it also has the potential to move the global community closer to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2020 Biodiversity targets being negotiated this year.”
The paper concludes with several policy suggestions, including recommendations for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, improved financing models and international trade agreements that could help ensure climate benchmarks are met and that these critical ecosystems are protected.
The paper’s lead authors are working on further research to map irrecoverable carbon globally to better understand where the world’s largest living carbon reserves are protected, and where they face threats.
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About Conservation International
Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. We work in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International’s work on Conservation News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.