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Mapping Project Pinpoints Best Lands for Protecting ‘Irrecoverable Carbon’

A new mapping project has identified the most important ecosystems that might be available to purveyors of carbon credits aimed at conserving land and averting emissions—and pinpointed 3.3% of the available land that holds half of the irrecoverable carbon.

The study in the journal Nature Sustainability “offers a rigorously constructed map of the world’s most carbon-rich ecosystems,” Bloomberg Green reports. “University and non-profit researchers, led by the group Conservation International, have identified the places we absolutely can’t lose. Inspired by efforts to brand fossil-fuel reserves as ‘unburnable carbon’, the researchers define ‘irrecoverable carbon’ as the forests, mangrove stands, peatlands, and other areas that wouldn’t recover by 2050 if we wreck them.”

The most important sources of irrecoverable carbon are concentrated in areas equivalent to the combined size of India and Mexico. “It’s disappearing bit by bit every year, and holds 15 times the amount of CO2 released in 2020,” Bloomberg writes. But “the good news: new protections for 5.4% of this land would keep 75% of this carbon out of the atmosphere.”

The mapping study places a large proportion of stored carbon in tropical and subtropical areas—41.07 gigatonnes (billion tonnes) in forests, 15.84 Gt peatlands, 9.86 in wetlands, and 6.48 Gt in grasslands. The world’s boreal regions account for another 47.43 Gt. The paper argues that irrecoverable carbon should become a “key input” in designating new protected areas and Indigenous and community conserved areas (ICCAs).

“Given the concentration of vast sums of irrecoverable carbon within a relatively small land area, national governments as well as multilateral funders such as the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund, and the World Bank can advance global climate security by prioritizing lands with high irrecoverable carbon for long-term protection efforts and investment,” it states. “Beyond spatial prioritization, the concept of irrecoverable carbon could also inform new climate finance mechanisms.”

Now that countries participating in the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow have finalized international carbon trading rules under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, “the map can give companies a clear vision where they should be investing,” said lead author Allie Goldstein, director for climate protection at Conservation International.

The cautions, heard repeatedly while COP 26 was under way, is that protection of carbon stores can’t come at the expense of Indigenous and other communities that have relied on those lands for generations—nor can it be seen as an excuse to keep on emitting and burning fossil fuels. Decarbonization scenarios consistently make it clear that the path to limiting average global warming to 1.5°C must include a rapid fossil fuel phaseout and natural climate solutions—not just one of the two.

Bloomberg identifies the African Great Green Wall, a 5,000-mile band through the Sahel, from Senegal and Mauritania east to Ethiopia, as one of a “world of ecosystems in need of investments and ideas”. Land degradation costs the region $3 billion per year, the news agency notes. But an effort to restore 100 million hectares of land, launched in 2007, has only achieved 4% of its target so far.