The world’s protected areas are an essential part of the global response to climate change; they can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and help society cope with impacts by maintaining essential services upon which people depend.
Climate change poses an unprecedented level of threat to life on the planet. Predictions about the scale and speed of impact are continually being revised upwards, so that what was already a serious situation continues to look even more threatening. Protected areas can contribute to the two main responses to climate change.
1. Mitigation, by preventing the loss of carbon that is already present in vegetation and soils (i.e. carbon storage) and sequestering additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in natural ecosystems (i.e. carbon capture). These ecosystem services were scarcely even recognized a decade ago but are now seen by many people as one of the single most important benefits of protected areas.
Forests are the world’s largest terrestrial carbon stock (including the soil carbon stored underneath forests) and they continue to sequester additional carbon from the atmosphere, even in old-growth phases, by building up carbon in humus and soil. Forest protected areas are amongst the most effective mechanisms for keeping that carbon locked up, by preventing forest clearance and protecting soils. Protected areas already store at least 15 per cent of global carbon biomass stores. Inland wetlands, especially peatlands, also contain huge carbon stores. However, dry or degraded peat also quickly loses carbon to the atmosphere, so that peat areas can either be net sources or sinks, depending on conditions and management. Management and restoration of protected areas help to preserve these fragile carbon stores, whereas ploughing or burning peat releases huge amounts of carbon.
2. Adaptation, through maintaining ecosystem integrity, buffering local climate, reducing risks and impacts from extreme events such as storms, droughts and sea-level rise, and maintaining essential ecosystem services can help people cope with changes in water supplies, fisheries, disease and agricultural productivity caused by climate change. Climate adaptation uses the ecosystem services which protected areas can provide, and which are described throughout this website, but with the additional aim of planning for the future projections about the likely impacts of climate change.
WCPA has its own specialist group on climate change and the Natural Solutions group works closely with the Climate Change group on issues related to ecosystem based adaptation and the role of protected areas in delivering mitigation and adaptation. Link to the page here: