Protected Areas as Solutions for Climate Change

Protected area systems provide powerful tools to combat climate change; with commitment and planning they could do even more in the future. This story is shared with CEC by Nigel Dudley and Trevor Sandwith of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

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Global climate change strategies identify the need to halt deforestation and to use natural ecosystems for sequestering carbon, as well as to help society adapt to the changes that are occurring. Protected areas can play a key role; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes: “Synergies between mitigation and adaptation can exist,  e.g. properly designed biomass production, formation of protected areas…” (our emphasis). Recognition of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will give important support for this strategy.

Protected areas can help in two ways: mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon in organic matter and adapting to impacts of climate change by maintaining ecosystem functioning and the services upon which millions of people depend.

Over 312 gigatonnes of carbon is already stored in protected areas according to the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), or 15 per cent of global carbon stocks. This may prove to be an underestimate, as we learn more about sequestration in marine and freshwater ecosystems. Protected areas are important particularly where habitat destruction would otherwise cause carbon loss. Economists can calculate the value of carbon: research by The Nature Conservancy found that carbon in protected areas in Bolivia, Venezuela and Mexico was worth US$39-87 billion in global damage costs avoided.

As climate change progresses, healthy natural ecosystems can help buffer human societies. Natural disasters are growing in number and severity, from about 100 major disasters per decade in the 1940s to almost 2,800 in the 1990s, because extreme climatic events are increasing and land shortages are forcing people onto disaster-prone areas like floodplains. The World Bank suggests that every dollar invested in effective disaster reduction saves seven dollars in costs of disasters. Protected mountain forests, coastal reefs, mangroves and other ecosystems buffer human communities against potentially disastrous events like avalanches, flooding and tidal surges.

Agricultural systems, water supplies and health services are also under pressure. Protected areas provide a suite of services, such as pure water (a third of the world’s hundred largest cities draw drinking water from forest protected areas), genetic material for crop breeding to meet changing environmental conditions, pharmaceuticals for emerging diseases and nursery grounds for marine and freshwater fisheries.

But protected areas are not a panacea. Many still leak carbon due to illegal logging, land clearance and poorly-managed fires. UNEP-WCMC studied several tropical protected areas and found forest loss much lower than elsewhere but still significant, perhaps as much as 3 per cent of the emissions from tropical deforestation.

Protected areas themselves face important new pressures due to climate change, with a risk that the solutions they offer will be lost if they decline in quality. Managers need to develop additional conservation strategies, such as building connectivity, providing routes for species to move as climate shifts, addressing extreme weather events and maintaining ecological integrity. A big challenge will be management in the face of increased uncertainly, for example to deal with changing rates of invasion by alien species or increased frequency of fires. Many management responses require new skills and new tools. In a crowded planet, any expansion of protection needs careful social safeguards and more stakeholders involved in decision-making than in the past.  Protected area systems that recognise and involve local communities, indigenous peoples, the private sector and other conservation stewards in a mosaic of conservation actions are more likely to increase the resilience of ecosystems and people in a changing world.

Meeting the challenges will require careful coordination. In particular, the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity must work closely together to maximise opportunities from protected areas. Key meetings of the UNFCCC in 2009 and the CBD in 2010 provide forums for agreement. IUCN has a critical role in ensuring that the potential of protected areas is fully realised. PACT 2020 (Protected Areas and Climate Turnaround) is a major initiative co-ordinated by IUCN across its secretariat, regions and commissions. It aims to increase awareness and understanding of the role of protected areas in climate change mitigation and adaptation; to influence policy to ensure that protected area systems play an appropriate role in national and regional responses; and to provide tools and guidance to integrate protected area systems into national strategies for climate change. An authoritative publication is being prepared for a Protected Areas and Climate Change Summit hosted in Andalucia in November 2009, which will send a strong message to Copenhagen in December.

If you have information regarding the role of protected area systems in climate change mitigation or adaptation, please contact Nigel Dudley ([email protected]). For further information on PACT 2020 please contact Trevor Sandwith ([email protected]) or Pedro Rosabal ([email protected]).

Author details:

Nigel Dudley is an independent consultant and serves as Vice Chair for Capacity Development on IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas

Trevor Sandwith is Director of Biodiversity and Protected Areas Policy for The Nature Conservancy and Deputy Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

Work area: 
Protected Areas
Protected Areas
Climate Change
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