Forests play a critical role in stabilizing Earth’s climate. Establishing protected areas (PAs) represents one approach to forest conservation, but PAs were rarely created to mitigate climate change. The global impact of PAs on the carbon cycle has not previously been quantified due to a lack of accurate global-scale carbon stock maps. Here we used ~412 million lidar samples from NASA’s GEDI mission to estimate a total PA aboveground carbon (C) stock of 61.43 Gt (+/− 0.31), 26% of all mapped terrestrial woody C. Of this total, 9.65 + /− 0.88 Gt of additional carbon was attributed to PA status. These higher C stocks are primarily from avoided emissions from deforestation and degradation in PAs compared to unprotected forests. This total is roughly equivalent to one year of annual global fossil fuel emissions. These results underscore the importance of conservation of high biomass forests for avoiding carbon emissions and preserving future sequestration.