Irrecoverable Carbon: Locating & Protecting Carbon Stores

Irrecoverable Carbon: Locating & Protecting Carbon Stores

What do the Pacific Northwest and Papua New Guinea have in common? According to a new study, they are regions with natural landscapes that store massive amounts of carbon. The study specifically set out to identify and map "irrecoverable carbon" -- primarily stored in mangroves, peatlands, old-growth forests and marshes -- which is carbon that, if released, would be impossible to recapture by the global net-zero target of 2050. In other words, these landscapes are natural "nature-based" solutions: we just need to get out of the way and let nature take its course. But there's the quandary for the planet: human development poses a big threat to natural carbon stores. And in just this last decade, at least 4 billion metric tons of this carbon has been lost.

Conservation International: What on Earth is Irrecoverable Carbon?, March 31, 2021.

Why This Matters

The irrecoverable carbon identified in this study provides a roadmap for protecting and preserving natural landscapes across the globe that store substantial amounts of carbon. As Conservation International put it, "To avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate breakdown, there are certain places that humanity simply cannot afford to destroy." For example, logging an old-growth forest does the double harm of destroying the ecosystem and releasing stored carbon that contributes to climate change.

Of the world's irrecoverable carbon 52% currently lacks any formal protection or management; and about one-third is located on or within Indigenous land, presenting an opportunity to let native communities steward the land.

With Smart Policy, We Can Protect Irrecoverable Carbon

As Allie Goldstein, director of climate protection at Conservation International told Fast Company:

The top half of the irrecoverable carbon is concentrated in just 3.3% of land area. That is really interesting, because it means that if we target and pinpoint conservation efforts, we can actually make a big difference on securing irrecoverable carbon in a relatively concentrated land area.

Spotlight On The Amazon

More than 14% of the world's irrecoverable carbon is found in Brazil (thanks to the Amazon rainforest), as well as coastal mangroves and the Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetland area. But deforestation in the Amazon is up by 33% in the first ten months of 2021 compared to the same time frame last year. According to a recent study in Nature, parts of Southeastern Amazonia have been found to emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb.

While plantlife in the Amazon absorbs billions of tons of carbon, the rainforest is threatened by logging, which releases that carbon into the air. A new declaration for forest action and protection was achieved at COP26 with 141 nations signing on to revise policy and halt and reverse loss and forest fires which are projected to increase with climate change.

Bloomberg Quicktake: The Brazilian Amazon's Tipping Point May Already Be Here, September 28, 2021.

CBS News: Complicit - The Amazon Fires, February 27, 2021.