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Irrecoverable Carbon: The places we must protect to avert climate catastrophe

Allie Goldstein; Monica Noon; Juan Carlos Ledezma; Patrick Roehrdanz; Shyla Raghav; Michael McGreevey; Chris Stone; Sushma Shrestha; Rachel Golden Kroner; David Hole; Will Turner

November 18, 2021

To avert climate catastrophe, there are ecosystems that we cannot afford to destroy, because they store vast amounts of carbon. Nature has absorbed more than half of anthropogenic emissions to date, preventing at least 0.4° C of warming. To stay within the 1.5° C limit, there are some natural places that we simply cannot afford to lose. Our team of scientists examined all ecosystems on Earth — from forests to grasslands to mangroves to tidal marshes — to identify this “irrecoverable carbon.” If lost, these carbon stores could not be restored by 2050, the year by which we need to reach net-zero emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But protecting these ecosystems is largely within our control. The amount of irrecoverable carbon we estimate is stored in Earth's ecosystems is 139 billion metric tons, equivalent to about 15 years of fossil fuel emissions. To get this figure, we used the latest remote sensing technology and modelled products—including global maps of carbon stored in vegetation and soil, as well as measurements of carbon sequestration rates from more than 13,000 forest plots—into a global scale and high-resolution data set. While not all of these places are immediately threatened, many are being destroyed or may become threatened in the years ahead. The fact that they’re “irrecoverable” means that we must 1) identify where they are and 2) proactively protect them before it’s too late. This report introduces irrecoverable carbon reserves and describes how they are designed to be inclusive, climate resilient, sustainably financed and tech enabled, bringing conservation into the 21st century.

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Goldstein, A., Noon, M., Ledezma, J. C., Roehrdanz, P., Shyla Raghav, McGreevey, M., Stone, C., Shrestha, S., Kroner, R. G., Hole, D., & Turner, W. (2021). Irrecoverable Carbon: The places we must protect to avert climate catastrophe (Version 1). Zenodo.