Observer  /  General  /  Science

People, climate change make even forests carbon emitters

Original publication for on 28 October 2021

New study finds human activity since 2001 has caused harm in even the world’s most protected forests.

Forests play a key role in mitigating climate change but a new study has found some of the world’s most protected areas, including Kinabalu Park in Malaysia, have been contributing to emissions over the past 20 years
[File: Fazry Ismal/EPA]

Humans and climate change have transformed 10 of the world’s most highly protected forests into net emitters of carbon over the past 20 years, according to a new report.

Land clearance and deforestation, as well as forest fires of increasing scale and severity, meant the forests released more carbon into the air than they stored, the study by UNESCO, the World Resources Institute, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found.

Among the World Heritage forests contributing to emissions were the Sumatran rainforest, the Kinabalu Park in Malaysian Borneo, and the Blue Mountains in Australia.

Yosemite and the Grand Canyon in the United States were also net emitters.

“Our finding that even some of the most iconic and best protected forests, such as those found in World Heritage sites, can actually contribute to climate change is alarming and brings to light evidence of the severity of this climate emergency,” said Tales Carvalho Resende, of UNESCO and co-author of the report.

The researchers used global satellite mapping with ground level monitoring to estimate the gross and net carbon absorbed and emitted by the World Heritage forests between 2001 and 2020, and to determine the causes of some of the emissions.

The Blue Mountains in Australia, which were ravaged by severe fires in 2019/2020 were one of the areas found to be emitting more carbon than they were absorbing
[File: Loren Elliott/Reuters]

They found that, as a whole, World Heritage forests absorbed the equivalent of approximately 190 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, which is equivalent to about half the United Kingdom’s annual emissions from fossil fuels.

But they also found that some sites, despite remaining net carbon sinks overall, showed spikes or clear upward trajectories in emissions that threatened the strength of the future sink.

“We now have the most detailed picture to date of the vital role that forests in World Heritage sites play in mitigating climate change,” Resende said. “All forests should be assets in the fight against climate change.”

There are 257 World Heritage forests across the globe, which cover a combined area of 69 million hectares (170 million acres) – roughly twice the size of Germany – and represent some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems.

They not only absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but also store substantial amounts of carbon – approximately 13 billion tons, more than the carbon in Kuwait’s proven oil reserves, according to the report.

The researchers warned continued landscape fragmentation and degradation as a result of human activity was likely to lead to more frequent and intense climate-related wildfires, and urged governments to reinforce protection and improve land management at the World Heritage sites, as well as their surrounding areas.

It also recommended protection of the forests be integrated into the world’s climate strategies.

“Protecting World Heritage sites from increasing fragmentation and escalating threats will be central to our collective ability to address climate change and biodiversity loss,” Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, said in a statement.

10 carbon-emitting World Heritage forests

Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, Honduras

Yosemite National Park, US

A palm oil plantation at the edge of the Lauser National Park Forest in Aceh, which is part of the World Heritage rainforest of Sumatra
[File: Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA]

Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, Canada/US

Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains, South Africa

Kinabalu Park, Malaysia

Uvs Nuur Basin, Russian Federation/Mongolia

Hikers in the Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park during forest fires in 2018
[File: Noah Berger/AP Photo]

Grand Canyon National Park, US

Greater Blue Mountains Area, Australia

Morne Trois Pitons National Park, Dominica

Related Articles

How a nuclear disaster turned Fukushima into a renewables leader

Following the 2011 triple disaster — and the subsequent cratering of support for nuclear energy — Fukushima Prefecture has pos...

05 October • 9 min read

Rural Australia is pockmarked with small dams. Researchers say they could also be ‘batteries’

At the Goudemand apartment building in Arras, France, a stagnant pool of green water about 30 centimetres deep sits on top of a ...

12 September • 5 min read

Can urban farming play a key role in food security?

Urban farming can conjure up images of small plots of land in the midst of concrete jungles — oases where city-dwellers can come...

10 March • 8 min read

Is biodegradable better? Making sense of ‘compostable’ plastics

Bacardi rum bottles, Skittles sweet wrappers, designer water bottles—a bevy of companies are developing biodegradable plastic pa...

03 March • 4 min read