05 February 2012

Carbon payments for forest conservation would dramatically reduce species extinctions

Laxenburg, Austria – 05 February: A study published today in Nature Climate Change shows that while the current rate of deforestation threatens to cause massive species extinctions worldwide, prompt implementation of an effective carbon payment system to avoid deforestation could reduce extinctions by more than three-quarters.

The United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change has approved the creation of a system of financial incentives to avoid carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD)  as part of the next climate agreement. Many of the world’s carbon-rich regions, like the tropical forests of Indonesia, the Congo Basin, and the Amazon, are also exceptional for their biodiversity, and it is therefore expected that carbon-based incentives could have substantial side benefits to global biodiversity conservation. This study is the first to provide a clear global analysis of how much, where and when these biodiversity benefits would occur. Its findings will inform ongoing negotiations of the new climate agreement and subsequent planning and implementation.

The international team of authors used an advanced global land-use model cluster and comprehensive biodiversity data to predict the impacts of deforestation on biodiversity. Three different analyses project that at least 10% and as much as 25% of 4,514 forest-dependent mammal and amphibian species would become extinct if the current rate of deforestation continues over this century. A fourth analysis involving many more species suggested that current deforestation rates will, by 2100, eliminate more than 36,000 plants and animals that occur only in “biodiversity hotspots”. Financial incentives for conserving forests that value their carbon at US$ 25 per ton of CO2 could avoid between 84% and 94% of these extinctions, while preventing 4.3 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions annually by 2020.

“Our current path of forest conversion will cause up to one in every four forest species to disappear forever due to deforestation alone. Climate change and other impacts would make matters even worse,” says lead author Dr. Bernardo Strassburg, Executive Director of the International Institute for Sustainability in Rio de Janeiro. “These species underpin the ecosystems that provide essential services valued in the trillions of dollars annually and are particularly vital to the world’s poor, so these irreversible losses are deeply worrying. Fortunately, we have found that if the carbon these forests hold is properly valued, conserving them could make a dramatic difference for species extinction and ecosystems while also serving as a major tool to mitigate the anticipated impacts of climate change.”

The authors are keen to point out that carbon incentives alone will not solve the problem of species extinction. “Incentives for improving the use of existing agricultural lands will be needed to alleviate pressures from agricultural expansion”, says Professor Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge. And though the study focused on forests, the authors stress that other biodiversity-rich areas also face increased risks and must also gain attention.

“Current progress in REDD negotiations under the UNFCCC is laudable, but an underfinanced REDD will not avoid catastrophic extinction levels,” says Dr. Michael Obersteiner, a research leader at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). The international community must therefore dedicate additional resources and ultimately a substantial fraction of climate mitigation efforts to REDD if it is to effectively deliver climate and biodiversity benefits. Nonetheless, even with high levels of carbon payments there will be extinctions in highly threatened regions like the Atlantic rainforests or the Andes, and so other conservation measures will continue to be necessary,” stated Obersteiner.

“This research emphasizes the dramatic advances now possible by combining massive biodiversity and remotely sensed datasets using sophisticated models,” adds Dr. Thomas Brooks, the Chief Scientist of NatureServe, “and underscores the tremendous importance of continued investment in maintenance, expansion, and availability of these data.”

“Global biodiversity loss and climate change are the two biggest challenges Humanity has ever faced,” according to Dr. Ana Rodrigues, researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France “and this study demonstrates that financial incentives to reduce deforestation can make a very significant contribution to tackling them both.”

“We are fast approaching the threshold for irreversible dangerous climate change,” concludes Dr. Strassburg. “Irreparable species extinctions are already happening and accelerating. Investing and implementing effective REDD incentives give the international community a practical and relatively cheap opportunity for addressing simultaneously two of the greatest threats our life-support system now faces. We should seize the opportunity while we have it.”

Reference: Impacts of incentives to reduce emissions from deforestation on global species extinctions. Bernardo B. N. Strassburg, Ana S. L. Rodrigues, Mykola Gusti, Andrew Balmford, Steffen Fritz, Michael Obersteiner, R. Kerry Turner, and Thomas M. Brooks, Nature Climate Change, 5 Feb 2012 | DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1375


IIASA is an international scientific institute that conducts research into the critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change that we face in the twenty-first century. Our findings provide valuable options to policy makers to shape the future of our changing world. IIASA is independent and funded by scientific institutions in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe.

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Last edited: 19 July 2013


Michael Obersteiner

Principal Research Scholar Exploratory Modeling of Human-natural Systems Research Group - Advancing Systems Analysis Program

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313