Fighting Deforestation Could Imperil Some Ecosystems, Study Finds

Negotiators in Copenhagen are very near to finalizing a remarkable deal that will see the vast majority of tropical nations attempt to reduce deforestation by 25% over the next 5 years. It seems obvious that such a deal would offer massive benefits to conservation, but a new study argues that some regions rich in biodiversity could get a raw deal.

The research argues that if safeguards are not put in place, agriculture could be displaced and intensified in regions with relatively low levels of carbon.

Deforestation contributes about 18% of all carbon emissions and is also the biggest driving force in pushing species to extinction; it’s also a relatively cheap way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why a deal to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) is an attractive option.

As the money potentially on the table “dwarfs current conservation expenditures in developing countries, REDD could trigger the biggest paradigm shift in conservation history,” according to the study published today in the journal Conservation Letters. “While it is generally assumed that REDD would have positive impacts for biodiversity conservation, this assumption has not been rigorously tested.”

The new report—authored by researchers at institutes including Stanford University in the U.S. and the Institute for Global and Applied Environmental Analysis (GAEA) in Brazil as well as the University of East Anglia (UAE) and the U.N.’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, both in the U.K.—created maps that compare biodiversity and the amount of carbon stored in ecosystems.

As a proxy for all biodiversity, the researchers looked at three global distribution data sets for mammals, amphibians, and birds, totaling 20,697 species. They compared this to new global estimates of the carbon content of ecosystems from 2008 that take into account biomass both above and below the ground. The overlap between biodiversity and carbon content was explored with statistical correlations.

The results confirmed that REDD could have significant benefits for conservation overall, but the report warns that relatively carbon-poor regions could suffer “a double conservation jeopardy, with conservation investment diverted away from them, and human pressure redirected towards them, as carbon-rich areas become the focus of conservation.” Examples include arid regions such as the Brazilian Cerrado, the Cape Floristic region of South Africa, and the Succulent Karoo of South Africa and Namibia.

“Overall REDD would have a very positive effect for biodiversity conservation, which makes it a very powerful tool that simultaneously addresses two of the greatest global environmental crises of our age,” said lead author Bernardo Strassburg of the UAE and the GAEA, in a statement. He argues that biodiversity distribution should be considered when REDD is planned and implemented.

“The problem is that this [U.N. convention on climate change] is about carbon and not about biodiversity and ecosystem services; that’s the Convention on Biological Diversity,” says Andrew Mitchell of Oxford University, who also directs the Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of 29 organizations fighting deforestation. But the two topics are related, he says: Biodiversity drives carbon, water, and energy cycles.