Protected areas found to be ‘significant’ sources of carbon emissions

A new study finds official protection status isn’t keeping deforestation – and the heavy carbon loads it releases – out of many of the world’s parks and reserves.

deforestation in Ecuador
A Kiwcha villager cuts an arenillo tree into planks in Orellano, Ecuador. New research shows that protected forest areas are not spared from deforestation. Image: Tomas Munita for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 per cent 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.

[Protected areas] could be the focus of protection efforts to reduce emissions from forest loss without having to change the status of land.

Murray Collins, lead author and research associate, University of Edinburgh

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.

The researchers’ analysis revealed that 2,018 protected areas across the tropics store nearly 15 per cent of all tropical forest biomass – carbon, that is. And it varies by protected area.

Reserves assigned to stricter categories of protection by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – such as “Strict Nature Reserve” and “National Park” – had the highest average density of carbon stocks. This suggests that better protected parks have more to lose, the researchers say.

“We find that, on average, the high protection status is awarded to the more intact or to higher biomass forests,” Collins said.

But deforestation doesn’t show such preference, the results show, with the team finding an average of nearly 0.2 per cent of protected area forest cover razed per year between 2000 and 2012.

“Deforestation is occurring right across all of the protected area categories,” Collins said. “It’s not an isolated phenomenon, which is surprising, especially where it’s occurring within [protected areas] with high levels of protection.”

And remember: deforestation drives carbon emissions. So much so, that the 2015 Paris Agreement – the 195-country pledge to implement concrete actions to minimize global warming – prominently includes reducing deforestation as one of its major targets.

The researchers found that the carbon emissions were unevenly distributed across protected areas. In fact, less than nine per cent of the reserves that the researchers sampled contributed 80 per cent of the total carbon emissions between 2000 and 2012.

That puts this small subset of reserves on par with the UK’s entire transportation sector, they write.

The researchers then zoomed in further.

“Remarkably,” the authors state, just 10 protected areas contributed a third of all recorded carbon emissions between 2000 and 2012. Many of these high-emitting areas are within Brazil and Indonesia, which shouldered nearly half of all carbon emissions, the researchers say.

The study highlighted the top five carbon-emitting protected areas: Triunfo Do Xingu Environmental Protection Area and Jamanxim National Forest, both in Brazil, Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, Patuca National Park in Honduras, and Sebangau National Park in Indonesia.

As the scientists note, high carbon emissions from protected areas in Brazil are not all that surprising. That’s because the network is large – the largest of tropical countries, in fact – and had more carbon to begin with. In other words, reserves in Brazil had more carbon to lose.

But the same can’t be said for Indonesia’s network, where emissions are more “concerning,” the authors write.

The researchers were not surprised “to find Brazil at the top of the list since it has a huge estate of protected high carbon stock forest,” they write.

“By comparison the relatively larger contribution from Indonesia is more concerning, illustrating the continuing problems the country has managing its protected areas.”

When the size of protected areas is considered, another story begins to emerge.

Correcting for the area of forest a protected area began with – in other words, establishing a baseline amount of forest carbon – generates a new list of areas that are producing more carbon emissions than would be expected simply based on their size. These areas are, perhaps, even more concerning, the researchers say.

“There’s a very small number of parks that are creating far more emissions than you would expect given their size,” Collins said. “They’re being disproportionately affected by deforestation.”

Twenty-three parks, to be exact. Despite representing only around 1 per cent of all protected areas, these 23 areas produced nearly a third of all carbon emissions recorded between 2000 and 2012. That’s about 20 times more than expected based on their size.

“That’s the really substantial finding,” Collins said. “You’ve got these large emissions coming from a relatively small set of parks.”

And it’s these areas that he believes should be the focus of climate change mitigation efforts.

“If we’re thinking through ways that we can reduce carbon emissions across the world, we should be looking for things that we can do to be very efficient with interventions,” Collins said.

“These areas are causing disproportionate amounts of forest loss and so they should be of interest for management interventions.”

Thanks to this study, there’s now a wish-list of low hanging fruit – or protected areas with disproportionate carbon emissions – with which to get started.

This story was published with permission from

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