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Wilderness a vital part of climate solution, conservationists say

By April Reese

Special contributor to NatGeo News Watch

MERIDA, Mexico–Protecting the world´s remaining wilderness areas should be a top priority at internationial climate change talks scheduled for next month in Copenhagen, conservation groups said yesterday in a formal statement aimed at influencing the negotiations.

While the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal is responsible for the majority of emissions of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change, the clearing of forests, wetlands and other wildlands accounts for 30 percent of carbon releases into the atmosphere, the groups said in the statement.

Left intact, wildlands absorb carbon dioxide, helping to offset emissions from fossil fuels.

“Runaway carbon emissions are driving the climate towards irreversible tipping points,” the groups´”Message from Merida” reads. “This situation is in stark contrast to the world we can have if wilderness and its contribution to natural life support systems are properly valued and protected.”


About a dozen groups signed the statement yesterday during the WILD9 international wilderness conference, being held here this week. The signatories include Conservation International, the Wilderness Foundation Africa, Naturalia, Sanctuary Asia, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Currently, only about 15 percent of the worlds´land area is protected, said Nik Lopoukine, chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas, speaking during the conference.

The most recent draft of the new climate change agreement does not acknowledge the importance of protecting the world’s wildlands, those familiar with the negotiations said.

“If we don’t address this problem in the negotiations, climate change will only get worse,” said Brendan Mackey, an ecologist with Australian National University.

Keeping wildlands whole will also help buffer ecosystems from the worst effects of a warming world, he said, explaining that the larger the protected area, the more resiliency an ecosystem has.

Pay to preserve?

Many conservationists and government officials are pushing for the creation of a system in which countries with high emissions can pay countries with abundant, carbon-absorbing wildlands to preserve them.

That approach, initially championed by Mexico but now gaining support among other developing nations, would create a financial incentive for developing countries to keep their natural areas intact while allowing the most polluting countries to offset some of their emissions, said Ernesto Enkerlin-Hoeflich, head of the Commission for Natural Protected Areas for United Mexican States, a government agency.

“It´s a cheaper way of reducing their carbon footprint,” he said in an interview. “It´s basically to create a market and use that market to achieve emission reduction goals.”


Conservationists are calling for tropical forests like this one in Mexico’s Calakmul Reserve to be protected to help address climate change.

Photo by Boyd Norton/via The WILD Foundation

Many developing countries contain tropical forests, which store about one-fourth of all the carbon sequestered in the world’s trees. Consequently, these wilderness-rich but cash-poor nations could see significant economic benefits from such a market, Enkerlin-Hoeflich added.

Safeguards to prevent corruption and ensure that wildlands enrolled in the market stay intact still need to be worked out, supporters acknowledged. But with both developed and developing countries warming to the idea, momentum is building for a climate change agreement that includes wilderness, conservationists said.

“I think this will come through one way or the other,” said Michael Sweatman, who sits on the WILD Foundation´s board.

The next round of climate change talks, which are conducted by the United Nations, will be held December 7-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The National Geographic Society is a sponsor of WILD9.