Forest protection

Effective Forest Protection Yields Global-Scale Emission Reductions

Effective Forest Protection

In a recent publication in Nature Communications, a team of researchers from the University of Maryland (UMD), Northern Arizona University, University of Arizona, Conservation International, and other institutions revealed a significant discovery. They identified that globally safeguarded forests possess an extra 9.65 billion metric tons of carbon stored within their aboveground biomass in comparison to ecologically comparable non-protected regions. This finding provides a quantifiable demonstration of the pivotal role protected areas play in our ongoing endeavors to mitigate climate impacts.

Financed through collaborative support from the National Science Foundation (led by Brian Enquist, University of Arizona) and NASA (led by Laura Duncanson, UMD), this study harnessed NASA’s Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI, under the guidance of Ralph Dubayah, UMD) to acquire remarkably precise forest height, structure, and surface elevation data. The research team systematically contrasted the emission-preventing effectiveness of protected regions against their unprotected counterparts, evaluating the hypothesis that safeguarded areas yield significantly heightened ecosystem services, encompassing carbon storage and sequestration, when compared to non-protected areas.

The most substantial and environmentally beneficial impact noted by the researchers stemmed from the safeguarded, moisture-rich broadleaf forest biome located in the Brazilian Amazon. Brazil’s contribution to the global signal stood at 36%.

Another notable discovery was the approximate equivalence between the aboveground biomass accumulation in protected regions and the annual global emissions from fossil fuels over the span of a year. Aboveground biomass pertains to the dry mass of woody material within vegetation that extends above the ground.

Prior efforts to assess the biomass content of protected areas were fraught with significant uncertainties and potential biases. Historical satellite-based biomass products faced saturation issues in dense biomass forests like those found in old-growth protected areas. However, the inclusion of GEDI data enabled the research team to surmount these constraints effectively.

In particular, the researchers employed data from the initial 18 months of the GEDI mission, encompassing height, cover, PAI (Plant Area Index), and AGBD (Above Ground Biomass Density) metrics. This data collection spanned from April 2019 to September 2020. In a comprehensive effort, the researchers—comprising individuals such as Mengyu (Amber) Liang, Veronika Leitold, and John Armston from UMD—analyzed a vast dataset of over 400 million 3D structure samples. They meticulously paired each protected area with ecologically akin unprotected areas, considering factors such as climate, human impact, land classification, country, and other relevant aspects.

The study conducted by the researchers underlines the pressing importance of safeguarding and rejuvenating biodiversity to counteract climate change, a message that resonates strongly with the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The IPCC report underscores the efficacy of nature-based solutions in addressing climate concerns. Strategies like curbing deforestation, ecosystem restoration, and enhancing the management of productive lands, including agricultural areas, rank among the top five most potent approaches for achieving significant carbon emission reductions by 2030.

“Protected areas constitute a vital component within the realm of conservation strategies. Their significance lies in the substantial bestowal of living carbon, crucial for tempering the adverse impacts of climate change,” remarked Patrick Roehrdanz, who serves as the Director of Climate Change and Biodiversity at Conservation International.

“The findings of this study underscore the pertinence of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s objective, which aims to achieve a 30 percent safeguarding of all ecosystems. This target emerges as a potent strategy to combat two of the most profound environmental challenges we confront: the decline of biodiversity and the complexities of climate change.”