If left unguarded, many of the world’s protected lands would have likely been burned, logged, or otherwise degraded, unleashing huge sums of heat-trapping gas.
Over the last two decades, these assaults would have yielded 9.65 billion tons of carbon, more than double U.S. fossil fuel emissions last year. That is the finding of a new study highlighting “the critical importance of protected areas to help mitigate climate change.”
For the research, scientists analyzed data gathered from the International Space Station on the shape and structure of flora around the world. Using these data, they were able to infer how much carbon is stored in various forests and grasslands.
The study showed that protected areas are far richer in carbon than unprotected areas, particularly in Brazil, which accounts for one third of the carbon safeguarded in protected areas globally. The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.
“There is a great deal of attention on forests as a critical tool for climate action,” Laura Duncanson, a scientist at the University of Maryland and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This is the first time we have been able to quantify the climate impact of protected areas.”