Humans suddenly become intelligent

1 04 2012

Some described it as the “eco-topia”; some believed they had died in the night and awoken in a different universe. Some just stood there gaping stupidly.

Yet the events of 01 April 2012 are real*. Humans suddenly became intelligent.

In an unprecedented emergency UN session this morning, all the world’s countries pledged to an immediate wind-down of the fossil-fuel economy and promised to invest in a rational combination of nuclear and renewable energy sources. Some experts believe the pledge would see a carbon-neutral planet by 2020.

Additionally, the session saw a world-wide pledge to halt all deforestation by 2013, with intensive reforestation programmes implemented immediately.

Family planning would be embraced worldwide, with a concerted effort to see the human population plateau by 2070, and begin declining to a stable 2 billion by 2300. Read the rest of this entry »

Unholy trinity of leakage, permanence and additionality

13 03 2012

I begin with the proverbial WTF? The title of this post sounds a little like the legalese accompanying a witchcraft trial, but it’s jargon that’s all the rage in the ‘trading-carbon-for-biodiversity’ circles.

I’m sure that most of my readers will have come across the term ‘REDD‘ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), which is the clever idea of trading carbon credits to keep forests intact. As we know, living forests can suck up a lot of carbon from the atmosphere (remember your high school biology lesson on photosynthesis? Carbon dioxide in. Oxygen out), even though climate change is threatening this invaluable ecosystem service. So the idea of paying a nation (usual a developing country) to protect its forests in exchange for carbon pollution offsets can potentially save two birds with one feeder – reducing overall emissions by keeping the trees alive, and ensuring a lot of associated biodiversity gets caught up in the conservation process.

The problem with REDD though is that it’s a helluva thing to bank on given a few niggly problems essentially revolving around trust. Ah yes, the bugbear of any business transaction. As the carbon credit ‘buyer’ (the company/nation/individual who wishes to offset its carbon output by ‘buying’ the carbon uptake services provided by the intact forest), you’d want to make damn sure that all the money you spend to offset your carbon actually does just that, and that it doesn’t just end up in the hands of some corrupt official, or even worse, used to generate industry that results in even higher emissions! As the buyer, of course you want to entice investors to give you lots of money, and if you bugger up the transaction (by losing the resource you are providing), you’re not likely to have any more investors coming knocking on your door.

Enter the unholy trinity of leakage, permanence and additionality.

This horrible jargon essentially describes the REDD investment problem:

Read the rest of this entry »

More is better

18 01 2012

In one of those rare moments of perusing the latest ecological literature, I stumbled across an absolute gem, and one that has huge conservation implications. Now, I’m really no expert in this particular area of ecology, but I dare say the paper I’m about to introduce should have been published in Nature or Science (I suspect it was submitted to at least one of these journals first). It was still published in an extremely high-impact journal in ecology though – the Journal of Ecology produced by the British Ecological Society (and one in which I too have had the honour of publishing an article).

Before I get into specifics, I have to say that one thing we conservation biologists tend to bang on about is that MORE SPECIES = BETTER, regardless of the ecosystem in question. We tend to value species richness as the gold standard of ecosystem ‘health’ and ‘resilience’, whether or not there is strong empirical evidence in support. It’s as if the more-is-better mantra strikes an intuitive chord and must, by all that’s ecologically right in the world, be true.

Of course, measuring what is ‘better’ is a difficult task, especially when we are talking about complex ecosystems comprising thousands, if not millions, of species. Does ‘better’ refer to the most temporally stable, the most genetically diverse, the most resilient to perturbation, or the provider of the greatest number of functions and hence, ecosystem services?

It’s up to you, but all these things tend to be difficult to measure for a large number of species and over time scales of sufficient duration to measure change. So the default for plants (i.e., the structural framework of almost all ecosystems) I guess has come down to a simpler measure of success – ‘productivity’. This essentially means how much biomass is produced per unit area/volume per time step. It’s not a great metric, but it’s probably one of the more readily quantifiable indices.

Enter the so-called ‘diversity-productivity relationship’, or ‘DPR’, which predicts that higher plant species diversity should engender higher net productivity (otherwise known as the ‘net biodiversity effect’). Read the rest of this entry »

Slicing the second ‘lung of the planet’

12 12 2011


Apologies for the slow-down in postings this past week – as many of you know, I was attending the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Auckland. I’ll blog about the conference later (and the stoush that didn’t really occur), but suffice it to say it was very much worthwhile.

This post doesn’t have a lot to do per se with the conference, but it was stimulated by a talk I attended by Conservation Scholar Stuart Pimm. Now, Stuart is known mainly as a tropical conservation biologist, but as it turns out, he also is a champion of temperate forests – he even sits on the science panel of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign.

I too have dabbled in boreal issues over my career, and most recently with a review published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution on the knife-edge plight of boreal biodiversity and carbon stores. That paper was in fact the result of a brain-storming session Navjot Sodhi and I had one day during my visit to Singapore sometime in 2007. We thought, “It doesn’t really seem that people are focussing their conservation attention on the boreal forest; how bad is it really?”.

Well, it turns out that the boreal forest is still a vast expanse and that there aren’t too many species in imminent danger of extinction; however, that’s where the good news ends. The forest itself is becoming more and more fragmented from industrial development (namely, forestry, mining, petroleum surveying and road-building) and the fire regime has changed irrevocably from a combination of climate change and intensified human presence. You can read all these salient features here.

So, back to my original thread – Stuart gave a great talk on the patterns of deforestation worldwide, with particular emphasis on how satellite imagery hides much of the fine-scale damage that we humans do to the world’s great forests. It was when he said (paraphrased) that “50,000 km2 of boreal forest is lost each year, but even that statistic hides a major checkerboard effect” that my interest was peaked. Read the rest of this entry »

Mucking around the edges

8 11 2011

Barry Brook over at beat me to the punch regarding our latest paper, so I better get off my arse and write my take on things.

This post is about a paper we’ve just had accepted and has come out online in Biological Conservation called Strange bedfellows? Techno-fixes to solve the big conservation issues in southern Asia – and it’s likely to piss off a few people, and hopefully motivate others.

We wrote the paper for a special issue of essays dedicated to the memory of our mate and colleague, Navjot Sodhi, who died earlier this year. The issue hasn’t been released yet, but we have managed to get our paper out well before.

Like Navjot, the paper is controversial. Also like Navjot, we hope it challenges a few minds and pushes a few boundaries. We, as conservation biologists, must accept the fact that we have largely failed – biodiversity is still being lost at an alarming rate despite decades and decades of good science, sound evidence-based policy recommendations and even some rescues of species on the ‘brink’. Huge consumption rates, a population of 7 billion humans and counting, carbon emissions exceeding all worst-case scenarios, and greater disparity of wealth distribution have all contributed to this poor performance.

So what else can we do? Read the rest of this entry »

1 million hectares annually – the forest destruction of Indonesia

30 09 2011

© A. Kenyon

Bill Laurance wrote a compelling and very dour piece in The Conversation this week. He asked for some ‘link love’, so I decided to reproduce the article here for readers. Full credit to Bill and The Conversation, of course.

What comes to mind when you think of Indonesia?

For biologists like myself, Australia’s northern neighbour provokes visions of ancient rainforests being razed by slash-and-burn farmers, and endangered tigers and orangutans fleeing from growling bulldozers.

This reality is true, but there is also hope on the horizon.

Indonesia is a vast, sprawling nation, spanning some 17,000 islands. Among these are Java, Sumatra, half of New Guinea and much of Borneo.

Some of the planet’s most biologically rich and most endangered real estate is found on this archipelago.

Today, Indonesia is losing around 1.1 million hectares of forest annually. That’s an area a third the size of Belgium, bigger than Australia’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

With forest loss now slowing in Brazil, Indonesia has the dubious distinction of being the world’s deforestation “leader”. No nation is destroying its forests faster.

In Sumatra, where I visited recently, the world’s biggest paper-pulp corporations are chopping down hundreds of thousands of hectares of native rainforest to make paper and cardboard.

Some of these corporations also fund aggressive lobbyists, such as World Growth in Washington DC [CJA Bradshaw’s note: see our piece on one particular patron of WG – Alan Oxley], to combat their critics and dissuade major retail chains from dropping their products. Read the rest of this entry »

Reforesting wealthy countries for the common good

29 06 2011

The Coalition of Financially Challenged Countries with Lots of Trees, known as ‘CoFCCLoT’, representing most of the world’s remaining tropical forests, is asking wealthy nations to share global responsibilities and reforest their land for the common good of stabilizing climate and protecting biodiversity.

“We are willing to play our part, but we require a level playing field in which we all commit to equal sacrifices,” a coalition spokeswoman says. “Returning forest cover in the G8 countries and the European Union back to historic coverage will benefit all of us in the long-term.”

Seventy-five per cent of Europe was once forested. Now it is 45 per cent. Some countries such as Ireland saw forest cover reduced to near zero. Most forest cover in the developed world is now often planted with stands of alien trees, turning them into deserts for biodiversity. Remaining natural forests are often highly fragmented and have few native species. Read the rest of this entry »

Avoiding the REDD monster

22 01 2010

© Floog

A short post about a small letter that recently appeared in the latest issue of Conservation Biology – the dangers of REDD.

REDD. What is it? The acronym for ‘Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation’, it is the idea of providing financial incentives to developing countries to reduce forest clearance by paying them to keep them standing. It should work because of the avoided carbon emissions that can be gained from keeping forests intact. Hell, we certainly need it given the biodiversity crisis arising mainly from deforestation occurring in much of the (largely tropical) developing world. The idea is that someone pollutes, buys carbon credits that are then paid to some developing nation to prevent more forest clearance, and then biodiversity gets a helping hand in the process. It’s essentially carbon trading with an added bonus. Nice idea, but difficult to implement for a host of reasons that I won’t go into here (but see Miles & Kapos Science 2008 & Busch et al. 2009 Environ Res Lett).

Venter and colleagues in their letter entitled Avoiding Unintended Outcomes from REDD now warn us about another potential hazard of REDD that needs some pretty quick thinking and clever political manoeuvring to avoid.

While REDD is a good idea and I support it fully with carefully designed implementation, Venter and colleagues say that without good monitoring data and some well-planned immediate policy implementation, there could be a rush to clear even more forest area in the short term.

Essentially they argue that when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, there could be a 2-year gap when forest loss would not be counted against carbon payments, and its in this window that countries might fell forests and expand agriculture before REDD takes effect (i.e., clear now and avoid later penalties).

How do we avoid this? The authors suggest that the implementation of policies to reward early efforts to reduce forest clearance and to penalise those who rush to do early clearing need to be put in place NOW. Rewards could take the form of credits, and penalties could be something like the annulment of future REDD discounts. Of course, to achieve any of this you have to know who’s doing well and who’s playing silly buggers, which means good forest monitoring. Satellite imagery analysis is probably key here.

CJA Bradshaw
ResearchBlogging.orgOscar Venter, James E.M. Watson, Erik Meijaard, William F. Laurance, & Hugh P. Possingham (2010). Avoiding Unintended Outcomes from REDD Conservation Biology, 24 (1), 5-6 DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01391.x

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Carbon = biodiversity

21 12 2009

I’ve decided to blog this a little earlier than I would usually simply because the COP15 is still fresh in everyone’s minds and the paper is now online as an ‘Accepted Article’, so it is fully citable.

The paper published in Conservation Letters by Strassburg and colleagues is entitled Global congruence of carbon storage and biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems is noteworthy because it provides a very useful answer to a very basic question. If one were to protect natural habitats based on their carbon storage potential, would one also be protecting the most biodiversity (and of course, vice versa)?

Turns out, one would.

Using a global dataset of ~ 20,000 species of mammal, bird and amphibian, they compared three indices of biodiversity distribution (species richness, species threat & range-size rarity) to a new global above- and below-ground carbon biomass dataset. It turns out that at least for species richness, the correlations were fairly strong (0.8-ish, with some due to spatial autocorrelation); for threat and rarity indices, the correlations were rather weaker (~0.3-ish).

So what does this all mean for policy? Biodiversity hotspots – those areas around the globe with the highest biodiversity and greatest threats – have some of the greatest potential to store carbon as well as guard against massive extinctions if we prioritise them for conservation. Places such as the Amazon, Borneo Sumatra and New Guinea definitely fall within this category.

However, not all biodiversity hotspots are created equal; areas such as Brazil’s Cerrado or the savannas of the Rift Valley in East Africa have relatively lower carbon storage, and so carbon-trading schemes wouldn’t necessarily do much for biodiversity in these areas.

The overall upshot is that we should continue to pursue carbon-trading schemes such as REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) because they will benefit biodiversity (contrary to what certain ‘green’ organisations say about it), but we can’t sit back and hope that REDD will solve all of biodiversity’s problems world wide.


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ResearchBlogging.orgStrassburg, B., Kelly, A., Balmford, A., Davies, R., Gibbs, H., Lovett, A., Miles, L., Orme, C., Price, J., Turner, R., & Rodrigues, A. (2009). Global congruence of carbon storage and biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2009.00092.x

Scoping the future threats and solutions to biodiversity conservation

4 12 2009

Way back in 1989, Jared Diamond defined the ‘evil quartet’ of habitat destruction, over-exploitation, introduced species and extinction cascades as the principal drivers of modern extinctions. I think we could easily update this to the ‘evil quintet’ that includes climate change, and I would even go so far as to add extinction synergies as a the sixth member of the ‘evil sextet’.

But the future could hold quite a few more latent threats to biodiversity, and a corresponding number of potential solutions to its degradation. That’s why Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University recently got together with some other well-known scientists and technology leaders to do a ‘horizon scanning’ exercise to define what these threats and solutions might be in the immediate future. It’s an interesting, eclectic and somewhat enigmatic list, so I thought I’d summarise it here. The paper is entitled A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010 and was recently published online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

In no particular order or relative rank, Sutherland and colleagues list the following 15 ‘issues’ that I’ve broadly divided into ‘Emerging Threats’ and ‘Potential Solutions’:

Emerging Threats

  1. Microplastic pollution – The massive increase in plastics found in the world’s waterways and oceans really doesn’t have much focus right now in conservation research, but it should. We really don’t know how much we’re potentially threatening species with this source of pollution.
  2. Nanosilver in wastewater – The ubiquity of antimicrobial silver oxide or ions in products these days needs careful consideration for what the waste might be doing to our microbial communities that keep ecosystems alive and functioning.
  3. Stratospheric aerosols – A simultaneous solution and threat. Creating what would in effect be an artificial global cooling by injecting particles like sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere might work to cool the planet down somewhat. However, it would not reduce carbon dioxide, ocean acidification or other greenhouse gas-related changes. This strikes me as a potential for serious mucking up of the global climate and only a band-aid solution to the real problem.
  4. Deoxygenation of the oceans – Very scary. Ironically today I was listening to a talk by Martin Kennedy on the deep-time past of ocean hypoxia and he suggests we’re well on our way to a situation where our shelf waters could essentially become too anoxic for marine life to persist. It’s happened before, and rapid climate change makes the prospect plausible within less than a century. And you thought acidification was scary.
  5. Changes in denitrifying bacteria – Just like we’re changing the carbon cycle, we’re buggering up the nitrogen cycle as well. Changing our water bodies to nitrogen sources rather than sinks could fundamentally change marine ecosystems for the worse.
  6. High-latitude volcanism – One of these horrible positive feedback ideas. Reducing high-latitude ice cover exposes all these slumbering volcanoes that once ‘released’, start increasing atmospheric gas concentrations and contributing to faster ice melt and sea level rise.
  7. Trans-Arctic dispersal and colonisation – Warming polar seas and less ice mean fewer barriers to species movements. Expect Arctic ecosystems to be a hotbed of invasion, regime shifts and community reshuffling as a result.
  8. Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish – Not one I would have focussed on, but interesting. These spiny, venomous fish like to eat a lot of other species, and so represent a potentially important invasive species in the marine realm.
  9. REDD and non-forested ecosystems – Heralded as a great potential coup for forest preservation and climate change mitigation, focussing on maintaining forests for their carbon sequestration value might divert pressure toward non-forested habitats and ironically, threaten a whole new sphere of species.
  10. International land acquisition – Global financial crises and dwindling food supplies mean that governments are acquiring more and more huge tracts of land for agricultural development. While this might solve some immediate issues, it could potentially threaten a lot more undeveloped land in the long run, putting even more pressure on habitats.

Potential Solutions

  1. Synthetic meat – Ever thought about eating a sausage grown in a vat rather than cut from a dead pig? It could become the norm and a way of reducing the huge pressure on terrestrial and aquatic systems for the production of livestock and fish for human protein provision.
  2. Artificial life – Both a risk and a potential solution. While I’ve commented before on the pointlessness of cloning technology for conservation, the ability to create genomes and reinvigorate species on the brink is an exciting prospect. It’s also frightening as hell because we don’t know how all these custom-made genomes might react and transform naturally evolved ones.
  3. Biochar – Burn organic material (e.g., plant matter) in the absence of oxygen, you get biochar. This essentially sequesters a lot of carbon that can then be put underground. The upshot is that agricultural yields can also increase. Would there be a trade-off though between land available for biochar sequestration and natural habitats?
  4. Mobile-sensing technology – Not so much a solution per se, but the rapid acceleration of remote technology will make our ability to measure and predict the subtleties of ecosystem and climate change much more precise. A lot more work and application required here.
  5. Assisted colonisationI’ve blogged about this before. With such rapid shifts in climate, we might be obliged to move species around so that they can keep up with rapidly changing conditions. Many pros and cons here, not least of which is exacerbating the invasive species problems around the globe.

Certainly some interesting ideas here and worth a thought or two. I wonder if the discipline of ‘conservation biology’ might even exist in 50-100 years – we might all end up being climate or agricultural engineers with a focus on biodiversity-friendly technology. Who knows?

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgSutherland, W., Clout, M., Côté, I., Daszak, P., Depledge, M., Fellman, L., Fleishman, E., Garthwaite, R., Gibbons, D., & De Lurio, J. (2009). A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010 Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.10.003

How to restore a tropical rain forest

6 11 2009

thiakiHere’s a little story for you about how a casual chat over a glass of wine (or many) can lead to great scientific endeavours.

A few years ago I was sitting in the living room of my good friends Noel Preece and Penny van Oosterzee in Darwin chatting about life, the universe, and everything. They rather casually mentioned that they would be selling their environmental consulting company and their house and moving to the Queensland rain forest. Ok – sounded like a pretty hippy thing to do when you’re thinking about ‘retiring’ (only from the normal grindstone, at least). But it wasn’t about the easy life away from it all (ok, partially, perhaps) – they wanted to do something with their reasonably large (181 ha), partially deforested (51-ha paddock) property investment. By ‘something’, I mean science.

So they asked me – how would we go about getting money to investigate the best way to reforest a tropical rain forest? I had no idea. As it turns out, no one really knows how to restore rain forests properly. Sure, planting trees happens a lot, but the random, willy-nilly, unquantified ways in which it is done means that no one can tell you what the biggest biodiversity bang for your buck is, or even if it can compete on the carbon sequestration front.

Why carbon sequestration? Well, in case you’ve had your head up your bum for the last decade, one of the major carbon mitigating schemes going is the offset idea – for every tonne of carbon you emit as a consumer, you (or more commonly, someone else you pay) plant a certain number of trees (because trees need carbon to grow and so suck it out of the atmosphere). Nice idea, but if you deforest native ecosystems just to bash up quick-growing monoculture plantations of (usually) exotic species with little benefit to native biota, biodiversity continues to spiral down the extinction vortex. So, there has to be a happy medium, and there has to be a way to measure it.

So I said to Penny and Noel “Why don’t we bash together a proposal and get some experts in the field involved and submit it to the Australian Research Council (ARC) for funding?” They thought that was a smashing idea, and so we did.

Fast forward a few years and … success! The Thiaki Project was born (‘Thiaki’ is the name of the Creek flowing through the property north of Atherton – seems to be of Greek origin). We were extremely lucky to find a new recruit to the University of Queensland, Dr. Margie Mayfield (who worked previously with Paul Ehrlich), who was not only an expert in the area of tropical reforestation for biodiversity, she also had the time and energy to lead the project. We garnered several other academic and industry partners and came up with a pretty sexy experiment that is just now getting underway thanks to good old Mr. ARC.

The project is fairly ambitious, even though the experiments per se are fairly straight forward. We’re using a randomised block design where we are testing 3 tree diversity treatments (monoculture, 1 species each from 6 families, and 5 species each from those same 6 families) and two planting densities (high and low). The major objective is to see what combination of planting density and native tree species provides the most habitat for the most species. We’re starting small, looking mainly at various insects as they start to use the newly planted blocks, but might expand the assessments (before planting and after) to reptiles, amphibians and possibly birds later on.

But we’re not stopping there – we were fortunate enough to get get a clever soil scientist, Dr. David Chittleborough of the University of Adelaide, involved so we could map the change in soil carbon during the experiment. Our major challenge is to find the right combination of tree species and planting techniques that restore native biodiversity the most effectively, all the while maximising carbon sequestration from the growing forest. And of course, we’re trying to do this as most cost-effectively as we can – measuring the relative costs will give landowners contemplating reforestation the scale of expenditures expected.

I’m pretty proud of what Margie, Noel, Penny and the rest of the team have accomplished so far, and what’s planned. Certainly the really exciting results are years away yet, but stay tuned – Thiaki could become the model for tropical reforestation worldwide. Follow the Thiaki Project website for regular updates.

I’d also love to recreate the Thiaki Project in southern Australia because as it turns out, no one knows how to maximise biodiversity and carbon sequestration for the lowest cost in temperate reforestation projects either. All we need is a few hundred hectares of deforested land (shouldn’t be hard to find), about $1 million to start, and a bit of time. Any takers?

CJA Bradshaw

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carbon offset

© C. Madden

Fragmen borealis: degradation of the world’s last great forest

12 08 2009


I have the dubious pleasure today of introducing a recently published paper of ours that was at the same time both intellectually stimulating and demoralising to write. I will make no apologies for becoming emotionally involved in the scientific issues about which my colleagues and I write (as long as I can maintain with absolute sincerity that the data used and conclusions drawn are as objectively presented as I am capable), and this paper probably epitomises that stance more than most I’ve written during my career.

The topic is especially important to me because of its subtle, yet potentially disastrous consequences for biodiversity and climate change. It’s also a personal issue because it’s happening in a place I used to (many, many years ago) call home.

Despite comprising about a third of the world’s entire forested area and harbouring some of the lowest human densities anywhere, the great boreal forest that stretches across Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and a huge chunk of Russia is under severe threat.

Surprised that we’re not talking about tropical deforestation for once? Surprised that so-called ‘developed’ nations are pilfering the last great carbon sink and biodiversity haven left on the planet? If you have read any of the posts on this blog, you probably shouldn’t be.

The paper today appeared online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution and is entitled Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity (by CJA Bradshaw, IG Warkentin & NS Sodhi). It’s essentially a review of the status of the boreal forest from a biodiversity perspective, and includes a detailed assessment of the degree of its fragmentation, species threat, climate- and human-influenced disturbance regime, and its carbon sequestration/emission status. I’ll summarise some of the main findings below:



  • Russia contains ~53 % of the boreal forest, followed by Canada (25 %), USA (18 %, mostly in Alaska), Sweden (2 %) and Finland and Norway (~1 % each); there are small areas of boreal forest in northern China and Mongolia.
  • Fire is the main driver of change in the boreal forest. Although clearing for logging and mining abounds, it pales in comparison to the massive driver that is fire.
  • There is evidence that climate change is increasing the frequency and possibly extent of fires in the boreal zone. That said, most fires are started by humans, and this is particularly the case in the largest expanse in Russia (in Russia alone, 7.5 and 14.5 million hectares burnt in 2002 and 2003, respectively).
  • While few countries report an overall change in boreal forest extent, the degree of fragmentation and ‘quality’ is declining – only about 40 % of the total forested area is considered ‘intact’ (defined here as areas ≥ 500 km2, internally undivided by things such as roads, and with linear dimensions ≥ 10 km).
  • Russian boreal forest is the most degraded and least ‘intact’, and has suffered the greatest decline in the last few decades compared to other boreal countries.
  • Boreal countries have only < 10 % of their forests protected from wood exploitation, except Sweden where it’s about 20 %.
  • There are over 20000 species described in the boreal forest – a number much less than that estimated for tropical forests even of much smaller size.
  • 94 % of the 348 IUCN Red Listed boreal species are considered to be threatened with extinction, but other estimates from local assessments compiled together in 2000 (the United Nations’ Temperate and Boreal Forest Resources Assessment) place the percentages of threatened species up to 46 % for some taxa in some countries (e.g., mosses in Sweden). The latter assessment placed the Fennoscandian countries as having the highest proportions of at-risk taxa (ferns, mosses, lichens, vascular plants, butterflies, birds, mammals and ‘other vertebrates’), with Sweden having the highest proportion in almost all categories.
  • Boreal forest ecosystems contain about 30 % of the terrestrial carbon stored on Earth (~ 550 Gigatonnes).
  • © BC Ministry For Range/L. Maclaughlan

    Warmer temperatures have predisposed coniferous forest in western Canada to a severe outbreak of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) extending over > 13 M ha. © BC Ministry For Range/L. Maclaughlan

  • Mass insect outbreaks killing millions of trees across the entire boreal region are on the rise.
  • Although considered in the past as a global carbon sink, recent disturbances (e.g., increasing fire and insect outbreak) and refinements of measurement mean that much of the area is probably a carbon source (at least, temporarily).
  • A single insect outbreak in western Canada earlier this decade thought to be the direct result of a warming planet contributed more carbon to the atmosphere than all of that country’s transport industry and fire-caused release combined.
  • Current timber harvest management is inadequately prepared to emulate natural fire regimes and account for shifting fire patterns with climate change.
  • No amount of timber management can offset the damage done by increasing fire – we must manage fire better to have any chance of saving the boreal forest as a carbon sink and biodiversity haven.

Those include the main take-home messages. I invite you to read the paper in full and contact us (the authors) if you have any questions.

CJA Bradshaw

Full reference: Bradshaw, CJA, IG Warkentin, NS Sodhi. 2009. Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity. Trends in Ecology and Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.019

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Ray of conservation light for Borneo

25 07 2009

This was the most interesting 20 minutes I’ve spent in the last wee while.

Up until just now, I had never heard of Willie Smits or what he’s been doing in Indonesia. I’ve been fairly hard on Indonesia in some of my papers and blog posts because of the ecological tragedy taking place there. I’ve focussed on the immense rate and extent of deforestation, the oil palm explosion, peatland destruction and air pollution arising from runaway fires there – I have thus far ignored any real positives because I didn’t really believe there were any.

Then I saw Smits’ TED talk. Two words – very impressed. I usually enjoy and even barrack for TED talks, and this is no exception.

This man and his organisation have really been applying a great deal of the research mentioned on, as well as collecting data proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you integrate people’s needs with those of biodiversity, you can restore not only entire ecosystems, you can make humans benefit immensely in the process. A chronic pessimist, I can scarcely believe it.

He talks about a whole-system approach where agriculture, full rain forest restoration, climate control, carbon sequestration, monitoring and local governance all work together to turn once bare, fire-prone, species-poor deforested grasslands into teaming jungles that support happy, healthy, wealthy and well-governed human communities. Please watch this.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

CJA Bradshaw

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Indonesia’s precious peatlands under oil palm fire

31 05 2009
© Cockroach Productions

© Cockroach Productions

A small opinion piece about to be published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (June 2009 issue) discusses a major concern we (Lian Pin Koh, Rhett Butler and I) have with Indonesia’s decision to allow peatlands less than 3 m deep to be converted to oil palm. Is nothing immune to the spread of this crop (see previous posts here and here on oil palm plantations)?

Why is this such a big deal? Well, we list five main reasons why it’s a bad idea for Indonesia, the world in general and biodiversity:

  1. Peatlands are amazing carbon sinks, so their destruction necessarily equates to a large release of carbon into the atmosphere (Page et al. 2002)
  2. Tropical peatlands take a hell of a long time to generate – 100s to 1000s of years (Chimner and Ewel 2005)
  3. Tropical peatlands harbour a massive biodiversity, but they are still poorly described and their ecosystems only superficially understood
  4. The burning of peatlands to provide the conditions necessary to plant oil palm will contribute to the massive ‘haze’ problem in South East Asia (Lohman et al. 2007)
  5. The decision goes against the principles of ‘reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation‘ (REDD), which means it will be more difficult to implement carbon trading schemes that intrinsically value intact forests

More detail can be found in the Write Back piece that will be published shortly in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. For more information on oil palm and its conservation implications, see the following:

CJA Bradshaw

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One more (excellent) reason to conserve tropical forests

26 02 2009

© K. Sloan Brown

© K. Sloan Brown

Another nail in the deforesters’ justification coffin – tropical forests are worth more intact than cut down. This one from and one for the Potential section:

Undisturbed tropical forests are absorbing nearly a fifth of carbon dioxide released annually by the burning of fossil fuels, according to an analysis of 40 years of data from rainforests in the Central African country of Gabon.

Writing in the journal Nature, Simon Lewis and colleagues report that natural forests are an immense carbon sink, helping slow the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels.

“We are receiving a free subsidy from nature,” said Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds. “Tropical forest trees are absorbing about 18% of the CO2 added to the atmosphere each year from burning fossil fuels, substantially buffering the rate of climate change.”

But the good news may not last for long. Other research suggests that as tropical forests fall to loggers, dry out due to rising temperatures, and burn, their capacity to absorb carbon is reduced.

The research, which combined the new data from African rainforests with previously published data from the Americas and Asia, lends support to the idea that old-growth forests are critical to addressing climate change. Recent climate negotiations have included debates on compensating tropical countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (“REDD” or “avoided deforestation”).

“To get an idea of the value of the sink, the removal of nearly 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by intact tropical forests, based on realistic prices for a tonne of carbon, should be valued at around £13 billion per year,” said study co-author Lee White, Gabon’s Chief Climate Change Scientist. “This is a compelling argument for conserving tropical forests.”

“Predominantly rich polluting countries should be transferring substantial resources to countries with tropical forests to reduce deforestation rates and promote alternative development pathways,” added Lewis.

The new findings show that tropical forests account for roughly half of the 8.5 billion tons of carbon that is sequestered in terrestrial sources each year, the balance is absorbed by soils and other types of vegetation. Another 8.5 billion tons dissolved in oceans, leaving 15 billion of the 32 billion tons emitted by humans each year in the atmosphere. Deforestation accounts for roughly 6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions – greater than the emissions from all the world’s planes, ships, trucks, and cars.

Note – the contention by Muller-Landau that the Lewis and colleagues’ findings are not realistic due to ‘regeneration’ demonstrates her ignorance of recent work demonstrating the sequestration aspect of mature forests. But more importantly, this cherry-picked gripe, even if it were plausible, is almost of no consequence. With much of the world’s tropical forests already badly degraded or destroyed, there will inevitably be large areas of regenerating forests for centuries to come (i.e., time periods relevant to climate change projections). We haven’t even managed to reduce the RATE of tropical deforestation, so the opportunities for regeneration will persist, making the Lewis result all the more important. Muller-Landau is known for her unrealistic and anti-conservationist views, so her comments are hardly surprising. My advice – take her opinions with a very large shaker of salt (or better yet, ignore entirely).

CJA Bradshaw

Primary forests as global carbon sinks

13 09 2008

Certainly one for the Potential list…

p00zbhgzA new paper by Sebastien Luyssaert  and colleagues in Nature entitled Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks deserves a mention here.

Many have argued under the climate change mitigation banner that so-called ‘old-growth’ (let’s call them primary forests henceforth to distinguish them from [usually] younger secondary forests) do not provide net carbon uptake because most of their growth has occurred in the past. In other words, they provide a carbon store, but do not take much more out of the atmosphere once they’ve attained a certain ecological equilibrium. This was a major impediment for the argument that protecting such forests could be achieved economically by valuing them in national or global carbon-trading schemes. It was a shame considering that it seems the economic incentives to protect such forests were falling on deaf ears because (a) governments and industry tend to regard the quick turn-around option of timber extraction as more economically sensible and (b) of the difficulty of valuing ecosystem services provided by primary forests.

But not so, say Luyssaert and colleagues! After scouring an array of studies and databases they conclude that forests between 15 and 800 years of age do in fact continue to uptake carbon and so are not carbon ‘neutral’. Brilliant! With this latest evidence in hand, I hope the economic incentives to preserve the little remaining primary forests around the world and the ecosystem services they provide will encourage governments and industry to invest more in their preservation than their destruction. It’s worth noting here too that once such forests are destroyed (e.g., timber extraction), the majority of their stored carbon (both actual and potential via future carbon uptake) are released back to the atmosphere, thus exacerbating climate change. As such, valuing the preservation of pristine forests on the carbon-trading market should receive a far higher weighting that secondary plantations or other sequestration schemes.

CJA Bradshaw

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Classics: Ecosystem Services

2 09 2008

‘Classics’ is a category of posts highlighting research that has made a real difference to biodiversity conservation. All posts in this category will be permanently displayed on the Classics page of

tobewell_homeEhrlich, P.R., H. A. Mooney. (1983). Extinction, substitution, and ecosystem services. BioScience 33, 248-254

I may be mistaken, but I think this is one of the earliest appearances of the term ‘ecosystem services‘, which is essentially the concept that intact biological communities and functioning species interactions provide humanity with a host of ‘services’ that support or improve our quality of life. The ongoing assault on species and habitats around the globe are, to use Ehrlich & Mooney’s words “accompanied by severe degradation of the public service functions of the systems”.

What are ecosystem services? The list is long and varied, and much of them remain largely unquantified, but I’ll attempt to list the more important ones here:

Add your favourite to the list – there are plenty of sources that expand on these. For starters try the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Wikipedia entry, the Ecological Society of America and Gretchen Daily’s lab at Standford University.

What is the value of ecosystem services to humanity?

This is a fairly controversial area because of the difficulty of measuring the link between ecosystem function and the services they provide, but also by the decision to include direct and direct costs of providing the services artificially. However, many people have attempted to put them into financial terms – Robert Costanza and colleagues put together some figures (see here, here, and here for examples) that attracted some criticism. Nonetheless, ecosystems are estimated to provide us with trillions of dollars worth of goods and services. Some examples from the Ecological Society of America:

  • Much of the Mississippi River Valley’s natural flood protection services were destroyed when adjacent wetlands were drained and channels altered. As a result, the 1993 floods resulted in property damages estimated at twelve billion dollars partially from the inability of the Valley to lesson the impacts of the high volumes of water.
  • Over 100,000 different animal species – including bats, bees, flies, moths, beetles, birds, and butterflies – provide free pollination services. One third of human food comes from plants pollinated by wild pollinators. The value of pollination services from wild pollinators in the U.S. alone is estimated at four to six billion dollars per year.
  • Eighty percent of the world’s population relies upon natural medicinal products. Of the top 150 prescription drugs used in the U.S., 118 originate from natural sources: 74 percent from plants, 18 percent from fungi, 5 percent from bacteria, and 3 percent from one vertebrate (snake species). Nine of the top 10 drugs originate from natural plant products.

What does this mean for conservation of biodiversity? Well, since scientists and policy makers alike have embraced the concept, we now have a much more convincing argument for maintaining the intactness of natural ecosystems. In the past we found it hard to convince those struggling to make ends meet (or even to obtain their next meal) about the importance of preventing species extinctions. Why should someone worried about whether or not his or her family will survive another day give a rat’s arse about species conservation? Well, the degradation of ecosystem services ensuing from species extinctions means that everyone’s – including the poorest – lives are reduced in quality and duration as we destroy these systems. See a previous post on Conservation for the People for more information.

CJA Bradshaw

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Australian Wet Tropics Biosequestration Project

28 08 2008

Guest post from Penny van Oosterzee, Degree Celsius:

© P. van Oosterzee
© P. van Oosterzee

The Wet Tropics Regional Biosequestration Project Development Document was launched last week on the global stage, for public scrutiny, via the Climate Community and Biodiversity (CCB) website. There are only a dozen other cases in the world that have managed to reach this level of scrutiny.

The CCB standards are used in both the voluntary global markets and also for CDM (clean development mechanism) projects (only afforestation and reforestation) that have significant biodiversity outcomes. It is well known that land use, land use change, and forestry provides the most cost-effective means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally, and we believe the Wet Tropics project is at the leading edge of showing how.

The Wet Tropics Project is the world’s first regional biocarbon verification case based on community NRM (Natural Resource Management) activities, aggregating different bio-sequestration activities (reforestation, assisted natural regeneration, avoided deforestation, grazing land management, reduced use of fertiliser in agriculture) of myriad landholders in one verification case.

The initiative of using NRM Regional Plan’s as a basis for biosequestration project design is an innovation that can be rolled out across the state and nationally. Using Regional Plans ensures scientifically robust monitoring outcomes because of the adoption of systems already in place for monitoring. Economically the approach allows trading to occur at the regional and landholder level, and sets the stage for new livelihoods in regional Australia in a climate constrained world.

The Wet Tropics Project is itself a pilot for the NRM regions comprising the catchments of the Great Barrier Reef which are pivotal for its the survival. The Wet Tropics Project also helps to inform national policy debates since both Garnaut and the Federal Government’s Green Paper point out the importance of forestry and agriculture but fail to provide any way forward, and are on a watching brief for solutions.

The Wet Tropics initiative with its link to regional plans immediately enables entry into other global developments such as water quality credits and biodiversity credits.

See also the Degree Celsius website for more information.

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