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Map outlines Earth’s most important natural carbon banks

‘Irrevocable’ carbon banks – we’re talking tropical forests, mangroves, peatlands, and other natural areas – store massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Which areas are currently most vulnerable to spilling over?

The term ‘irrevocable’ is often used to describe natural carbon banks.

This is because they sequester so much carbon that if it were to start being released – due to deforestation, wildfires, and logging – it wouldn’t be possible to recapture it by the mid-century.

You probably won’t need reminding at this stage that 2050 marks our global deadline for the Paris Agreement, by which point we’re expected to hit net zero emissions and stay below 1.5C global warming compared to pre-industrial levels.

With that goal fresh in our minds from the crunch talks in Glasgow, a natural preservation company called Conservation International has mapped out the key areas that need the most protection, and would spell instant failure were they to perish in the coming years.

Credit: Conservation International

Storing roughly 15 times more carbon than was released by the fossil fuel industry last year, it turns out most such emissions are concentrated within relatively small areas. Scientists used cloud computing to find the most vulnerable regions, containing 75% of all irrevocable carbon while covering just 14% of Earth’s land.

You can scroll through the interactive map yourself here.

Eagle-eyed viewers may question why the Arctic and its constantly melting permafrost isn’t on the map. That’s because Conservation International chief Allie Goldstein wanted to focus on ecosystems ‘where people can manage whether that carbon is conserved or released into the atmosphere.’ It helps to heighten the sense of accountability.

Of the key areas, we’re not surprised to see tropical forests and peatlands brightly glowing within the Amazon rainforest, islands in Southeast Asia, and the Congo Basin. All three received a fair chunk of coverage and formed the basis of pledges during Forest Day at COP26.

Credit: Conservation International

Heading off land, carbon hungry mangroves, seagrass, and tidal wetlands are more evenly spread across the globe. That means they’re harder to manage, but have less risk of drastically altering the climate in one fell swoop.

Speaking of their findings, Goldstein revealed, ‘We found that the top half of the irrecoverable carbon is concentrated in just 3.3% of land area.’ This is obviously terrifying, given the seismic climate shifts that could take place were any such ecosystems to perish, but equally allows us to ‘pinpoint conservation efforts’ more effectively.

Less than a quarter of the areas highlighted on this map are currently under protection, yet more than 70 countries have committed to conserve 30% of natural land by 2030. Non-profits like Conservation International want to help them align their strategies.

More than a third of the world’s irrevocable carbon now lives within the natural ecosystems surrounding indigenous communities. Financing geared towards adaption and climate recovery for these people has been criticised as lacklustre during COP26.

Considering more than 4 billion metric tons of irrevocable carbon has been lost in the last decade, it’s safe to say we need action now.

‘This map points to a longer-term vision,’ says Goldstein, following with the assertion it has to begin now. ‘It’s not 100 years, it’s really the next 10 years where we need to expand conservation efforts to really make a difference.’