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Protected areas and climate change

Well-connected and effectively managed conservation networks, including protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs), are important tools to address the multiple goals of adapting to and mitigating climate change, safeguarding biodiversity from threats and preserving the ecosystem services on which human livelihoods depend. As climate change impacts species’ ranges, life cycles, population dynamics, and ecological interactions, alters community structure and can lead to new invasive species, the ability of conservation networks to conserve the species and habitats for which they were created is becoming compromised.

Protected Areas Impacted by Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment contains some sobering statistics about the global loss of biodiversity and identifies climate change as one of the top five direct drivers of biodiversity loss. IPBES also notes that under most scenarios climate change will become an increasingly important direct driver of changes to biodiversity. Expanding and strengthening of ecologically representative, well-connected conservation networks, is one of a few effective policy measures that can address the challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change simultaneously.

Protected Areas and Climate Change Mitigation

All pathways to limiting average global temperature increases to 2°C or 1.5°C require removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The most efficient way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is to enhance terrestrial, coastal and marine carbon sinks and stores. Nature-based climate solutions, including protection and restoration of forests and other carbon storing ecosystems, could provide up to 37% of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed to stabilize warming to 2°C by 2030.

Terrestrial protected areas have been estimated to store about 12% of terrestrial carbon stocks and to sequester annually about 20% of the carbon sequestered by all land ecosystems. The carbon stored in coastal and marine protected areas is believed to be significant, although it has not yet been quantified. Oceans have absorbed 20-25% of atmospheric carbon dioxide since 2008, and blue carbon – the carbon stored in mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows – accounts for half of the carbon stored in marine sediments.

Carbon-dense ecosystems (i.e. primary forests, grasslands, peatlands, drylands and blue carbon systems) that store the most carbon are being lost at an alarming rate. For example, between 2014 and 2018, tropical tree cover loss emitted 4.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year – more than the 2017 greenhouse gas emissions of the whole European Union. Nearly half of these emissions occurred within humid tropical primary forests.

Integrated ecosystem approaches to identify new protected areas should lead to enhanced protection of these fast-disappearing carbon-dense ecosystems, which are often also some of the most biodiverse.