Setting forests aside in the tropics is helping to stanch the upward creep of global temperatures, according to new research, in addition to the benefits that parks and other protected areas provide for the wildlife and indigenous groups who depend on them.
“Tropical protected areas are often valued for their role in safeguarding biodiversity,” said ecologist Dan Bebber of the University of Exeter in a statement. “Our study highlights the added benefit of maintaining forest cover for reducing carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, [which is] helping slow the rate of climate change.”
Scientists know that protected areas lower deforestation rates, especially in the tropics. A 2014 study of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon found that unprotected areas that were accessible by road or river had been deforested by almost 44 percent, compared to about 11 percent in protected areas. But until now, the precise impact these forests have on keeping carbon out of the atmosphere hasn’t been clear.
Land cleared of its forest in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.
Bebber and fellow ecologist Nathalie Butt of the University of Queensland in Australia decided to look at what would have happened to carbon levels if forests in parks and reserves in South America, Asia and Africa had been cut. In total, these areas cover about 20 percent of all tropical forests. Using statistical models, the researchers then estimated how much how much carbon such deforestation would have released.
They found that safeguarding those areas between 2000 and 2012 translated into the same reduction in carbon emissions as if deforestation rates had been cut by nearly 30 percent over the same time period. Their findings were published online in the journal Scientific Advances on Oct. 25.
Forest clearing by humans accounts for about 10 percent of the total amount of carbon emitted globally. But tropical forests also tie up 68 percent of the world’s forest-held carbon in the trees’ roots, trunks and canopies.
The team found that preserves in South America socked away the most carbon during that time period, at 368.8 million metric tons (406.5 million tons). Asian protected areas accounted for another 25 million metric tons (28 million tons), and those in Africa added 12.7 million metric tons (14 million tons).
Deforested land in Brazil. Photo by Dan Bebber / University of Exeter.
In all, the world’s tropical protected areas saved nearly 407 million metric tons (449 million tons) of carbon each year. That’s about three times the amount of carbon that the U.K. emits every year.
In their view, the authors argue that these results bolster support for keeping forests standing.“Carbon storage, along with socioeconomic and biodiversity benefits, provides further support for the need to maintain the world’s protected area network,” they write.
Barber, C. P., Cochrane, M. A., Souza, C. M., & Laurance, W. F. (2014). Roads, deforestation, and the mitigating effect of protected areas in the Amazon. Biological Conservation, 177, 203-209.
Bebber, D. P., & Butt, N. (2017). Tropical protected areas reduced deforestation carbon emissions by one third from 2000–2012. Scientific Reports, 7 (1), 14005.
Banner image of deforestation for oil palm in Indonesia by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.