A UNESCO report found that these sites can absorb nearly 190 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year – nearly half of the UK’s annual fossil fuel emissions.
But over the past 20 years, many of these sites have seen a rise in emissions, some even exceeding the amount of carbon they’ve removed from the atmosphere.
Given the size of these forests, Tales Carvalho Resende, Project Officer in UNESCO’s Natural Heritage Division and co-author of the report, says this is an increasingly global problem that requires global action.
“What the results show here is that it’s not necessarily a specific country or region problem, but a global problem,” Resende told CNN. “When we see where the 10 sites that have become carbon sources spread across the world, the bottom line is that climate action is needed on a global scale.”
However, the report shows that since 2000, threats from extractive industries, environmental degradation and climate change have been reported in nearly 60% of World Heritage sites having lost more than 8.6 million hectares of forest, greater than Belgium. Of the ten sites that have turned into carbon emitters, three are in the United States.
The authors note that this is the first time researchers have observed how the world’s forests store carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Over the centuries, the world’s natural heritage forests have stored nearly 13 billion tons of carbon, which exceeds the total amount of carbon in Kuwait’s oil reserves.
“We can now see the important role that World Heritage forests play in stabilizing global climate,” Nancy Harris, director of research for Global Forest Watch at the World Resources Institute and co-author of the report, told CNN. “The truth is, we totally underestimate him and underestimate him.”
Forest fires in particular have burned large areas of these forests in recent years. While fires are an important part of the forest ecosystem and many plant species depend on them to spread their seeds, scientists say fires are made worse by the risk of releasing carbon that has long been stored in soil and trees.
In the past decade, rising temperatures and arid conditions have created a great deal of environment for wildfires. The report cited several examples of major fires at World Heritage sites over the past decade, including 2016 in Lake Baikal in Russia, and 2019 and 2020 in the Tasmanian wilderness and the Great Blue Mountains in Australia.
“We’ve seen some wildfires in some places that have emitted more than 30 million megatons of carbon dioxide — that’s more or less than Bolivia emits the same amount of fossil fuels in one year,” Resende said.
“A single event could actually be emissions for an entire country,” he added. “And remember, the emissions considered in the study are only within site limits, meaning they represent only a small portion of fires in the broader landscape.”
The report is based on recently published maps that track global carbon exchanges between forests and the atmosphere over the period 2001-2020. web sites.
“Our analysis shows how we can stop taking nature for granted and appreciate the climate benefits of these sites and other important forests around the world,” Harris said.
The ability of forests to prevent the climate crisis from spiraling out of control makes the threats they face even more worrisome, Resende said.
“Hopefully we can actually take climate action to protect these world heritage gems,” Resende said. “These are laboratories for environmental changes as a whole, which affect not only the climate but also biodiversity. We want to enable dialogue with the most important interest groups in order to actually fund these sites and provide sustainable investments.”
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