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Irrecoverable carbon and protecting the ecosystems that store it

Ōtepoti – Certain areas are uniquely important carbon vaults: the Amazonian canopy; the Congo Basin; the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest and the mangrove swamps north of Auckland to name a few.

If destroyed, these ecosystems could take decades or centuries to regenerate. How then can people protect the vital lands that prevent the atmosphere from smothering the world?

Throughout this past summer, wildfires ravaged forests from California to Siberia, devastating wildlife, and turning entire communities to dust. But as affected countries deal with the visible damage, the whole world will have to reckon with an unseen consequence for decades to come: a massive release of greenhouse gas.

It’s easy to forget that the ground underneath contains far more than just dirt, even in some of Earth’s most rugged environments.

All kinds of ecosystems — lush rainforest, muddy peatland, shady mangroves — contain eons of stored carbon, captured by photosynthesis. Worldwide, there are about 730 gigatons of manageable carbon locked away in nature; and if disturbed by fire, agriculture, or development, these stores can vanish, sending long-stored emissions right back into the air.

As humanity works to prevent runaway climate change, this kind of unplanned expense could quietly bust the carbon budget.

When these high-carbon habitats are threatened, so are people. Think of emissions like a household budget. To maintain a two-thirds chance of keeping global warming below 1.5°C, humanity can only afford to convert an additional 109 gigatons of carbon to CO2.

That’s less than all the irrecoverable carbon on the planet, and many times less than all the carbon stored by nature. Already, humans must halve emissions each decade to meet the necessary benchmarks — and that task is made much more difficult when people release additional carbon stored in nature.

In just the past decade, the planet has lost at least four gigatons of irrecoverable carbon, and as global temperatures continue to rise, the planet risks risk igniting a devastating feedback loop. Forest fires will burn hotter and longer.

Sea-level rise, intensifying storms and ocean acidification will destroy vital coastal ecosystems. And as northern latitudes grow warmer, new agricultural opportunities could put another 18 gigatons at risk.

Half of the world’s irrecoverable carbon is stored within just 3.3 percent of the planet’s land — about 4.9 million square kilometres, the combined area of Mexico and India.

People need to understand who’s managing that land, and how they’re doing it. Often, the answer is local peoples and communities, who oversee more than a third of Earth’s irrecoverable carbon reserves — and those are just government-recognized territories.

Expanding the land rights of these groups, who have been stewarding these ecosystems for generations, is essential to everyone’s survival. Another 15 percent of Earth’s land, and 23 percent of its irrecoverable carbon, is protected by governments.

A true climate resilience not only equips landscapes, cities, and institutions to deal with a changing world, but also training a new generation of stewards who will leave the planet better than they found it.

It’s their ingenuity that will inspire new advances and solutions — and their passion that will power us through tough times like these.

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