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Fire damage in Berbak National Park in 2011. According to lead author Murray Collins, the park and the protected forests around it were more recently (2015) dramatically degraded by fire. Photo by Murray Collins

  • The researchers found 2,018 protected areas across the tropics store nearly 15 percent of all tropical forest carbon. This is because protected areas tend to have denser, older forest – thus, higher carbon stocks.
  • Their study uncovered that, on average, nearly 0.2 percent of protected area forest cover was razed per year between 2000 and 2012.
  • Less than nine percent of the reserves that the researchers sampled contributed 80 percent of the total carbon emissions between 2000 and 2012, putting this small subset of reserves on par with the UK’s entire transportation sector.
  • The researchers say their findings could help prioritize conservation attention.

By Benji Jones

Deforestation is a big source of atmospheric carbon, one that is increasingly targeted by climate change mitigation projects around the world. Now, even forests in protected areas can be “significant” sources of carbon emissions, researchers say. According to a new study published last week in Scientific Reports, a journal by Nature, deforestation within protected areas of the tropics – especially those within Brazil and Indonesia – releases millions of metric tons of carbon every year.

Cutting down forests deals a double-blow to the climate. Research indicates forest loss not only releases carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere – accounting for nearly a fifth of anthropogenic, or human-caused, carbon emissions – but it also shrinks the so-called “lungs” of the Earth. According to scientists, that’s bad news for a climate that’s already warming.

And it seems that not even protected areas – which now cover an “encouraging” 15 percent of global land area – are safeguarded from deforestation’s reach, the study highlights.

“We’re seeing a lot of forest being lost across protected areas,” Murray Collins, lead author of the study and Research Associate at the University of Edinburgh, told Mongabay. “There’s a risk of thinking that, despite all deforestation occurring across the world, at least protected areas will be safe from it.”

That’s not the case, Collins says. In fact, it’s a problem that researchers have known about for a while, he adds. The consequences for the climate, however, weren’t so clear-cut. And that’s where Collins’ team came in.

Using existing maps of forest cover, carbon stocks, and protected areas, the researchers figured out how much carbon is tied up and released by deforestation within protected areas of the tropics – where much of the world’s remaining forests and biodiversity is found. In doing so, the researchers aimed to quantify the impact on the climate of the so-called “misperception” that deforestation is not occurring within the global protected area network.

According to the study, this information can provide low-hanging opportunities for climate change mitigation. Collins says that improving enforcement of an existing protected area – which may have large benefits for the climate – is far easier than reducing deforestation in other types of land use.

“[Protected areas] could be the focus of protection efforts to reduce emissions from forest loss without having to change the status of land,” he said. “For instance, if you’re trying to reduce emissions from a big logging concession, you have to change management practices, and so on.”

That latter option would be much more difficult, he added.

See the full story at MongaBay.com here.

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