Ocean-Climate Resolutions #3: Protecting Carbon Sinks

This is part of an ongoing series inspired by “New Year’s Resolutions” that explores the actions we must take to maintain our planet’s livability and how ocean and climate intersect when contemplating that future.

You can read the previous articles in this series at the following links:

  1. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels
  2. Produce and use less plastic

On April 4, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a report focusing on strategies for a just transition to a low-carbon economy (which will not necessarily halt economic progress). This includes climate protection strategies such as technologies for removing carbon dioxide. Facilities for the latter already exist, with the world’s largest carbon capture facility due to be operational by the end of 2021. However, great natural potential for carbon sequestration exists on our planet, from terrestrial forests to seagrass beds, and needs to be protected.

A new study shows that terrestrial vegetation and some aquatic ecosystems can even be a temporary source of carbon storage, as long as they go hand in hand with aggressive efforts to reduce emissions from fossil fuels. Even more critically, natural systems are vulnerable to disturbances caused by humans and climate change. As a result, it may be realistic to treat a natural carbon storage operation as short-lived.

“The risk is that carbon stored in ecosystems is lost back to the atmosphere through forest fires, insect infestations, deforestation or other human activities,” says co-author Kirsten Zickfeld.

Because they are so vulnerable, investing in preserving, protecting and enhancing such systems could support our planet’s habitability. The boreal and tropical forests, along with temperate grasslands, offer the greatest potential for terrestrial carbon storage. The soils in which they take root also play an important role. However, wetlands alone (particularly because of their soils!) have 75 percent of the carbon storage potential of the other three ecosystems combined.

Preserving forests, grasslands and wetlands would not only improve our ability to reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere that is warming our planet. But many of these systems are the scaffolding for valuable habitats that many species rely on. Therefore, a commitment to protecting natural ecosystems with carbon sequestration potential could be a boon not only for ourselves, but for many other creatures with whom we share this planet.

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