Protected areas (PAs) now shelter 54% of the remaining forests of the Brazilian Amazon and contain 56% of its forest carbon. However, the role of these PAs in reducing carbon fluxes to the atmosphere from deforestation and their associated costs are still uncertain. To fill this gap, we analyzed the effect of each of 595 Brazilian Amazon PAs on deforestation using a metric that accounts for differences in probability of deforestation in areas of pairwise comparison. We found that the three major categories of PA (indigenous land, strictly protected, and sustainable use) showed an inhibitory effect, on average, between 1997 and 2008. Of 206 PAs created after the year 1999, 115 showed increased effectiveness after their designation as protected. The recent expansion of PAs in the Brazilian Amazon was responsible for 37% of the region's total reduction in deforestation between 2004 and 2006 without provoking leakage. All PAs, if fully implemented, have the potential to avoid 8.0 +/- 2.8 Pg of carbon emissions by 2050. Effectively implementing PAs in zones under high current or future anthropogenic threat offers high payoffs for reducing carbon emissions, and as a result should receive special attention in planning investments for regional conservation. Nevertheless, this strategy demands prompt and predictable resource streams. The Amazon PA network represents a cost of US$147 +/- 53 billion (net present value) for Brazil in terms of forgone profits and investments needed for their consolidation. These costs could be partially compensated by an international climate accord that includes economic incentives for tropical countries that reduce their carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.