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Science: Opportunities to Preserve Forest Biodiversity While Cutting Carbon Emissions

The United Nations program to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) is intended to protect tropical forests and reduce carbon emissions, but researchers say that it could be doing much more to protect Earth’s biodiversity if it were tweaked a bit.


Forest clearing in the Peruvian Amazon
[© Rhett A. Butler,]

Currently, the REDD program pays countries for not cutting down their forests—an action that should consequently protect the biodiversity that those forests harbor. But in this week’s issue of Science, Oscar Venter from the University of Queensland in Australia and colleagues from Australia and Panama argue that allocations of REDD funds could be adjusted so that the program has a much greater impact on protecting forest-dwelling species around the world.

“REDD is likely to protect forests that are most cost-effective for reducing carbon emissions,” Venter writes in the report. “However, if the same REDD funds were targeted to protect biodiversity, almost four times the number of species would be protected.”

Although the authors’ data show that REDD currently protects relatively few forest species, their study suggests that minor adjustments to the program’s allocation of funds (diverting more money to certain species-rich countries, for example) could double the global biodiversity protected by REDD. Only 4-8% of the program’s carbon emissions benefits would be lost after these adjustments.

Venter and his colleagues agree that this is a worthwhile trade-off. “Without such a targeted approach, the biodiversity benefits of REDD will be far more limited than is otherwise possible,” they write.

Meanwhile, two opportunities have emerged to slow the clearing of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to the point where the end of deforestation in the region might finally be feasible. Accomplishing that feat would substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously protecting biodiversity in the region.

In a Science Policy Forum this week, Daniel Nepstad from the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil and colleagues from around the world outline Brazil’s formal commitment to establishing targets to reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to twenty percent of the recent, historical rate by the year 2020. (That target prompted the Norwegian government to commit $1 billion to Brazil, in honor of the REDD program.) Brazil’s government has already begun restricting deforestation in the Amazon by expanding the network of protected areas.

Nepstad and his colleagues highlight recent changes in the marketplace indicating that the beef and soy industries, which have been the main drivers of deforestation in the region, are beginning to cut companies who profit from deforestation from their supply chains.

“For Brazil to end Amazon deforestation it must support low-deforestation livelihoods for forest peoples and smallholder farmers, expand the law-abiding ‘responsible’ fraction of the cattle and soy sectors, improve law enforcement, and effectively manage protected areas,” they write in the Policy Forum.

This is no easy undertaking, but the authors are convinced it’s feasible under the REDD program—with additional international support.

“Support within the cattle, soy, and smallholder sectors for declining deforestation could be strengthened by identifying, rewarding, and expanding the pool of ‘responsible’ producers striving to comply with the law and become good land stewards,” Nepstad and colleagues suggest. “Market exclusion of deforesters could be strengthened through government measures that penalize companies and banks that do business with Amazon farmers and cattle ranchers indiscriminately.”

The culmination of these policies and ideas has tremendous potential to cut down on global carbon emissions while, at the same time, preserving Earth’s precious biodiversity.