Research published in the Nature Communications journal has quantified the ability of protected forests to stabilize Earth’s climate. The research’s findings affirm the importance of conserving high-biomass forests.
The study found that protected forests store nearly 10 billion more metric tons of carbon than similar, unprotected forests. Forest conservation is crucial for climate change mitigation, and industries are now recognizing the importance of nature preservation in reaching net-zero goals.
The research team used estimates of above-ground carbon from NASA’s Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, the first satellite system specifically designed to map forest structure, to quantify the carbon effectiveness of protected areas. The most carbon-effective forests are tropical moist forests, and Brazil’s Amazon forest accounted for 36% of the global signal.
By comparing data from 2000 to 2020, researchers found evidence of protected forests’ ability to store more human-caused carbon emissions. This affirms other research findings showing that the benefits of protecting forests stem largely from avoiding deforestation.
Findings support international action plans for conserving biodiversity, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, by providing guidance on identifying how, specifically, well-protected areas contribute to climate change mitigation.
Fossil Fuel Emissions Outpace Forest Carbon Intake
While these findings support avoiding deforestation in efforts to mitigate climate damage, researchers warn against considering forest preservation as an all-encompassing solution to offsetting fossil fuel emissions.
“We don’t want this to be interpreted as another ‘forests could save us’ paper, because while absolutely critical as part of the solution, they don’t come even close to offsetting fossil fuel emissions,” said lead author Laura Duncanson in an Inside Climate News Report. “Our results showed that in approximately 20 years, protected areas effectively avoided the equivalent of one year of annual fossil fuel emissions. It meant that substantial forest carbon was being lost from unprotected forests during that period. Forests take a long time to amass carbon, so I think the message is that protected areas are preventing things from getting worse, but no matter what, forest management will never cancel out fossil fuel emissions.”
She also noted that using forests as a tool for mitigating climate change is a relatively new initiative, so further satellite imaging will allow for measuring the effectiveness of conservation, rewilding, and mass tree planting efforts.