Carbon Sequestration in the U.S. National Parks: A Value Beyond Visitation

Belfer Center, Kennedy School, Harvard Univ. / by Adam Banasiak, Linda Bilmes and John Loomis

Carbon sequestration—the process of moderating global climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in long-term mineral, organic, and oceanic reservoirs—is an important ecosystem service provided by protected natural areas. One type of carbon sequestration that has received attention in recent years is vegetative carbon sequestration, which is the sequestration provided through plant growth. While a number of countries have developed estimates of their national vegetative carbon sequestration capacity, no estimate exists for the National Park Service (NPS) administered areas of the United States, 85 percent of which are vegetated.1 This paper addresses that knowledge gap. Using federally created, peer-reviewed work on carbon sequestration rates based on a 5-year baseline period (2001–2005) of observed data, NPS boundary data, and landcover types, the study calculates the current tonnage and economic value of vegetative carbon sequestration services on all NPS units located in the continental U.S. Average projected sequestration amounts for the period 2006–2050 are also provided based on modeled data. Using conservative assumptions, we find that at present average annual carbon sequestration on NPS lands amounts to 17.5 million metric tons of CO2, valued at $707 million dollars using the current federal interagency working group social cost of carbon damage price of $40.45/metric ton. In the future years through 2050, absent any changes in land management (such as invasive species removal or fire management) carbon sequestration is predicted to fall by 31 percent to an average of 12.0 million metric tons of CO2 sequestered annually, due to factors such as a warming climate and increased fire hazards. Given the benefits to society of avoiding this future loss in carbon sequestration, funding for management actions for the National Park Service may be economically justifiable in order to mitigate this decline, although further research is needed to better understand how specific NPS practices can maintain current carbon sequestration levels.


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