More than 180,000 protected areas—national parks, nature reserves and so on—now cover over 12% of the world’s land area and 7.2% of coastal waters. They play an important role in reducing carbon emissions and helping people adapt to the impacts of climate change. These are the findings of a newly-published paper in the journal Solutions.
Protected areas conserve natural ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, mangroves and grasslands contributing to the two main responses to climate change: mitigation through carbon capture and storage, and adaptation such as protection against extreme weather and provision of clean water.
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An estimated 20% of GHG emissions come from deforestation and other forms of land use change.
At least 15% of the world’s terrestrial carbon stock is stored in protected areas globally.
In the Russian Federation the protection of 1.63 million hectares of virgin taiga forests and peat soils in the Komi Republic means carbon storage estimated at 71.5 million tonnes.
In Bolivia, Mexico and Venezuela 25 million hectares of forest protected areas store over 4 billion tonnes of carbon, estimated to be worth US$ 39-87 billion.
Protected areas can help protect vulnerable communities and reduce the impact of disasters such as floods and hurricanes by allowing space for floodwaters to disperse and be absorbed by natural vegetation. Vegetation helps stabilize soil to reduce the power of landslides and avalanches while coral reefs, dunes and mangroves buffer coastlines against storms.
Protected areas also maintain the essential services that ecosystems provide, helping people cope with changes in water supplies, fisheries, health conditions and agricultural productivity caused by climate change.
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A locally-managed marine protected area network in Kimbe, Papua New Guinea focuses on climate change resilience to protect coral reefs, coastal habitats and food security.
In Trinidad and Tobago restoration of the Nariva wetlands recognizes their importance as a carbon sink, a high biodiversity ecosystem and a natural buffer against coastal storms.
The Muthurajawella protected area of Sri Lanka provides flood protection valued at over US$ 5 million a year.
In Australia, management of Melbourne’s forested catchment is being adapted to secure water supplies.
In Switzerland 17% of forests are managed to stop avalanches, a service worth US$2-3.5 billion per year.
Increased coverage and connectivity and improved management of protected areas will increase the resilience of ecosystems to climate change and safeguard vital ecosystem services. Most countries have a protected area network but few value protected areas as integral parts of national and local climate response strategies, even though both the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) now recognize the importance of ecosystem-based approaches to climate change.
“Ecosystem-based approaches will be critical elements in national and local climate strategies, complementing reductions in energy use and investments in hard infrastructure and new technologies,” says Trevor Sandwith, Director of IUCN’s Global Protected Areas Programme.
"Additional financial support will be needed for the global protected area network to meet new challenges presented by climate change. National and international policy efforts must be better coordinated," he adds.