Climate Change

What is irrecoverable carbon? How it exacerbates global warming?

By Pulaha Roy
Published: Thursday 16 December 2021

Researchers have identified and mapped 139 gigatonnes (Gt) carbon in some of the world’s major forests and peatlands — including the Amazon and the Congo — to avoid catastrophic climate change. Those are “irrecoverable carbon”, according to them.

Their study, Mapping the irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems published in Nature journal, focuses on the world’s carbon hotspots — a mere 3.3 per cent of the planet’s land surface area.

The concept of ‘irrecoverable carbon’ was introduced in 2020. Carbon, once released in air, can be recovered but would take centuries to fully recover or naturally reintegrate. In the new study, researchers have identified and mapped carbon reserves that are “manageable, are vulnerable to disturbance” and cannot be recovered by 2050.

That year has been set as the deadline for taking global carbon emissions to net zero in order for Earth to avoid warming at 1.5-2 degrees celsius above the pre-industrial levels.

To mitigate such a warming scenario, it is imperative to conserve the ecosystems with 139 Gt carbon. They are already being ravaged by wildfires and exploited for resources by mining and oil industries. The study warned that:

“Since 2010, agriculture, logging and wildfire have caused emissions of at least 4 Gt of irrecoverable carbon.

The Findings

Down To Earth visualised the data and found out that the Amazon is the biggest carbon sink on earth, holding 31.5 Gt irrecoverable carbon.

A carbon sink is a reservoir that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.

DTE earlier reported there was a 9.5 per cent rise in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon during 2019-2020 that5 could be compared to the size of Jamaica.

Brazil has the second-largest irrecoverable carbon reserves, after Russia that holds 23 per cent of the total irrecoverable carbon outlay in the world. Russia’s western Siberia region (as seen in the map) and Canada’s Hudson Bay region together hold 12.4 Gt carbon reserve.

Earlier this year, the United States National National Aeronautics and Space Administration had released satellite images of wildfires blazing through the Siberian region.

The second-largest reserve of carbon, at 132 Gt, comprise the islands of southeast Asia, with their equatorial rainforests. The Congo basin is the third-largest hotspot of irrecoverable carbon with over 8 Gt of carbon reserves, according to the study.

Australia, which has become a hotspot for wildfires, is home to 2.5 per cent of the world’s carbon reserve along its coastal mangroves and forests in the southeast and southwest. 

While the study paints a scary, doomsday-like picture of what the future holds, all is not lost, according to the researchers. The very fact that irrecoverable carbon is highly concentrated means conservation approaches can be highly targeted.

Further, the study puts forward other strategies like introducing concessions and payments for reducing deforestation and promoting Indigenous rights.

Currently, 23% irrecoverable carbon is within protected areas and 33.6 is managed by indigenous peoples and local communities, according to the study.

Irrecovreable Carbon

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