Article image

Protected forests offset a year's worth of global fossil fuel emissions

A research team from the University of Maryland, Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona, and other institutions has demonstrated the critical role of protected forests in climate change mitigation. 

According to the study, protected forests store an additional 9.65 billion metric tons of carbon in their aboveground biomass compared to ecologically similar regions that are not protected.

The implications of these findings are staggering. The enormous quantity of carbon stored equates to the total annual emissions produced by burning fossil fuels on a global scale. The research highlights the colossal importance of protected forests in maintaining climate stability.

How the study was conducted 

The experts utilized the advanced remote sensing technology provided by NASA’s Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation. This data, which included precise forest height, structure, and surface elevation information, offered the researchers an unprecedented level of detail in their analysis.

“We have never had these 3D satellite data sets before, so we have never been able to map forest carbon accurately at this scale,” said Laura Duncanson, the lead author of the study.

The team focused their efforts on comparing the ability of protected and unprotected areas to prevent emissions from reaching the atmosphere, challenging the long-standing assumption that safeguarded territories provide a disproportionately higher amount of ecosystem services. This includes crucial functions like carbon storage and sequestration.

What the researchers learned 

The insights shed new light on the global significance of forest preservation. According to the study, the most pronounced impact in terms of climate positivity originated from the safeguarded broadleaf forest biome located in the Brazilian Amazon. This region alone contributed a remarkable 36 percent of the carbon sequestration by protected forests. 

In addition to quantifying the carbon storage capacity of protected forests, the researchers highlighted a new ability to determine the volume of aboveground biomass – the dry mass of vegetation standing above the ground. This aspect of the study revealed that the biomass accumulated in safeguarded areas equals roughly the yearly global emissions from fossil fuels.

Historical efforts to measure biomass content within protected territories have been plagued by high levels of uncertainty and bias. 

“This is one of the first demonstrations of how new remote sensing technologies can be used to obtain detailed biomass estimates,” said Kendra McLaughlan, a program director in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology. “This study signals a new era in tropical forest ecosystem science.”

In the quest for solutions to the impending climate crisis, the research highlights the global importance of forest conservation. The study provides empirical evidence that safeguarding our forests is not just beneficial for preserving biodiversity, but is also a crucial strategy for storing carbon and offsetting global emissions. 

The pioneering research was funded collaboratively by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

More about protected forests

Protected forests are areas of woodland that are specifically preserved to ensure their natural condition remains unspoiled. They are often established to maintain biodiversity, protect endangered species, and combat climate change through carbon sequestration. Protection can mean different things, from strictly limiting human activity to promoting sustainable uses that do not harm the natural ecology.

There are several types of protected forests, including:

National parks

These are areas designated by the government to conserve significant or unique ecosystems, wildlife, and natural features. They often provide recreational opportunities for the public.

Nature reserves or wildlife refuges

 These are protected areas for specific animals, plants, or types of environment. They are often more restricted than national parks in terms of human activities.

Wilderness areas

These areas are usually untouched by human activity and are intended to remain in their natural state.

Indigenous protected areas

These are areas where local communities or indigenous people play a significant role in the management and use of the forests. The focus is often on sustainable practices that support livelihoods while protecting biodiversity.

World Heritage Sites

These sites, identified by UNESCO, have significant cultural or natural value. Some of these sites are forests, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the United States or the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra in Indonesia.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has developed a categorization system for protected areas, which ranges from I (Strict Nature Reserve, the highest level of protection) to VI (Protected Area with sustainable use of natural resources).

Protecting forests is vital for biodiversity conservation and mitigating climate change, but it also presents challenges. Balancing conservation with the needs and rights of local communities is often complex. 

Effective management requires resources, which can be lacking, especially in developing countries. However, the benefits of forest protection – such as clean air and water, carbon storage, habitat for wildlife, and places for recreation and spiritual solace – are priceless.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day