In a new study, the United Nations said that the World Heritage Forest sites played a vital role in mitigating climate change by absorbing 190 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. However, it also warned that ten forests released more carbon than they sequestered due to pressure from human activity and climate change, which is alarming.
World Resources Institute (WRI) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated the gross and net carbon absorbed and emitted by UNESCO World Heritage forests between 2001 and 2020 by combining satellite-derived data.
World Heritage forests’ combined area comes to 69 million hectares, which is roughly twice the size of Germany. They are biodiversity-rich ecosystems. In addition to absorbing CO2, they also store substantial amounts of carbon. Carbon sequestration by these forests over long periods has led to total carbon storage of approximately 13 billion tons of carbon, which is more than the carbon in Kuwait’s proven oil reserves, the study pointed out. It also revealed that if all the stored carbon were released into the atmosphere as CO2, it would be akin to emitting 1.3 times the world’s total annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
The authors of the study noted ten of the 257 that the World Heritage Forest sites emitted more carbon than they captured between 2001 and 2020 because of different anthropogenic disturbances and pressures. They noted clearance of land for agriculture caused greater emissions. The increasing scale and severity of wildfires, often linked to severe periods of drought, is also a predominant factor in several cases. Other extreme weather phenomena, such as hurricanes contributed at certain Forest sites.
BETTER MANAGEMENT OF SITES YIELD RESULTS
In the report, the authors call for strong and sustained protection of UNESCO World Heritage sites and their surrounding landscapes to ensure their forests can continue to act as strong carbon sinks and stores for future generations. They recommend rapidly responding to climate-related events, as well as maintaining and strengthening ecological connectivity through improved landscape management. As an example, they point out to the efforts in Indonesia, where the government agencies have been using near real-time fire alert systems to significantly reduce their average fire response time. At the Sangha Trinational World Heritage site, located within Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo, the creation of a buffer zone around the site has kept some human activity farther from this important carbon sink.
They also suggested integrating the continued protection of UNESCO World Heritage sites into international, national and local climate, biodiversity and sustainable development strategies in line with the Paris climate agreement, the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and the Sustainable Development Goals.
- UNESCO’s 257 natural and mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage sites contain 69 million hectares of forests but their climate benefits have not been quantified before due to a lack of available data.
- World Heritage forests were collectively strong carbon sinks between 2001 and 2020, with net absorption of approximately 190 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere each year, equivalent to roughly half the United Kingdom’s annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
- Long-term sequestration by World Heritage forest sites resulted in total carbon storage of approximately 13 billion tonnes, which exceeds the carbon in Kuwait’s proven oil reserves.
- Despite their global recognition and protection status at the national level, 10 sites were net carbon sources during the 2001-2020 period due to different stressors and disturbances. In the coming years, heightened emissions from anthropogenic stressors including land-use pressures and climate change are likely to occur at a growing number of sites worldwide. These disturbances could weaken the ability of forests to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
- Strong and sustained protection of World Heritage forests and surrounding landscapes can contribute to effective solutions for climate change mitigation, climate change adaptation and biodiversity conservation.