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Protecting irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems


Avoiding catastrophic climate change requires rapid decarbonization and improved ecosystem stewardship. To achieve the latter, ecosystems should be prioritized by responsiveness to direct, localized action and the magnitude and recoverability of their carbon stores. Here, we show that a range of ecosystems contain ‘irrecoverable carbon’ that is vulnerable to release upon land use conversion and, once lost, is not recoverable on timescales relevant to avoiding dangerous climate impacts. Globally, ecosystems highly affected by human land-use decisions contain at least 260 Gt of irrecoverable carbon, with particularly high densities in peatlands, mangroves, old-growth forests and marshes. To achieve climate goals, we must safeguard these irrecoverable carbon pools through an expanded set of policy and finance strategies.

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Fig. 1: Illustration of vulnerable and irrecoverable carbon in a hypothetical terrestrial ecosystem.
Fig. 2: Estimated amount of carbon that is recoverable or irrecoverable in major ecosystems within 30 years.
Fig. 3: Estimated annual carbon loss and fraction irrecoverable for major ecosystem types.
Fig. 4: Different types and levels of risk suggest different strategies for protecting irrecoverable carbon in ecosystems.

Data availability

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published Perspective and its supplementary information files.


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We thank the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI) for financial support (to S.C.P). The author’s views and findings expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the NICFI.

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W.T., D.H., J.R., J.F., J.F.H., L.P.K., J.S. and A.G. conceived the idea for the study. A.G., W.T. and S.S. interpreted the data and wrote the manuscript. All other authors edited the manuscript and advised on analysis. S.S. developed and performed the soil carbon analysis; K.A.T. developed the ForC-db on which much of the forest carbon analysis is based; S.C.P. developed the forest regeneration database on which forest sequestration rates are based; J.F.H. provided data and guidance on coastal ecosystems; and S.P. provided data and guidance on peatlands.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Allie Goldstein.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary discussion of methodology, Supplementary Fig. 1 and Supplementary Tables 1–12.

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Goldstein, A., Turner, W.R., Spawn, S.A. et al. Protecting irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 287–295 (2020).

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