Experiments in carbon-biodiversity trade-offs

19 07 2012

Last month I covered a topic that is not only becoming the latest fashion-trend in conservation, it is also where much of the research funding is going. Whether or not this is the best use of limited research resources is largely irrelevant – as I always preach to fledgling grant writers: “Write about what the funding agency wants to fund, not what you want to do”. Cynical, I know, but it is oh-so-true.

The topic in question is how we as conservation biologists ensure that the new carbon economy drives positive change for biodiversity, rather than the converse. Hell knows we really can’t afford for land-use change to get any worse for biodiversity; worldwide we are on trajectory for a mass extinction within our lifetime, so anything that potentially makes it worse should be squashed completely.

But it seems that land- and seascape changes that might arise from trading carbon (including carbon pricing) are on a knife-edge as far as biodiversity is concerned. I described this dilemma in my previous post, and I am happy to say that the manuscript arising is almost complete. Briefly, if we as a society decide to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and capture as much carbon as possible by altering land-use practices, then it is likely that our forests will become vast monocultures incapable of sustaining much biodiversity at all. In other words, there’s a balance to be struck between what is good for carbon sequestration and what is good for biodiversity. While not always mutually exclusive, neither are they mutually attainable goals. Read the rest of this entry »





Costs and benefits of a carbon economy for conservation

12 06 2012

I’ve had the good fortune of being involved now in a several endeavours funded by the Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS); two of those were workshops targeting specific questions regarding estimating modern extinction rates and examining the effects of genetic bottlenecks on Australian biota. The third was a bit different, to say the least – it was a little along the lines of ‘build it, and they will come‘. In other words, what happens when you bung 40 loosely associated researchers in a room for two days? Does anything of substance result, or does it degenerate into a mere talk-fest. I’m happy to say the former. The details of the ACEAS ‘Grand Workshop‘ are now being finalised in a paper that should be submitted by the end of the month. The ACEAS report is reproduced below.

The Grand ACEAS Workshop was something of an experiment: what will happen when we bring 30 of Australia’s top scientists working on land management issues into the same room?

The Grand Workshop participants came from academia, research institutions and the government, and had all received ACEAS funding for working groups. David Keith, Ted Lefroy, Jasmyn Lynch, Wayne Meyer and Dick Williams were amongst the attendees of the two-day workshop.

And when this group of people came together wanting to analyse and synthesise ecological data, great things happened.

“We decided to focus on how carbon pricing legislation will affect land use change and how will that spill over into biodiversity persistence”, said Professor Corey Bradshaw, Director of Ecological Modelling at The University of Adelaide, who led the synthesis activity at the Grand ACEAS Workshop.

“Will carbon pricing lead to good outcomes for biodiversity, or negative ones, or will it have no bearing whatsoever?”

The workshop participants broke into five groups to discuss how the carbon tax legislation will change land use when it is introduced in July 2012, and the potential impact on biodiversity.

Some of the questions asked included:

  • Is it enough simply to allow plants to re-grow to be eligible for carbon credits?
  • How will an increase in forestry plantations impact biodiversity, water catchments and fire regimes?
  • Will there be more kangaroo grazing to reduce methane emissions and erosion, replacing hard-hoofed livestock?
  • Can you receive carbon credits for shooting large feral animals like goats, camels, deer and boars?

The groups found many opportunities for positive biodiversity outcomes with the carbon sequestration activities encouraged by carbon pricing, but there are also many potential ‘bio-perversities’. Read the rest of this entry »





If a tree falls… preventing deforestation with insurance

3 05 2012

As CB readers will know, I’ve reported a few times on our iREDD idea, and it got a little pick-up overseas. Here’s a great article by Rachel Nuwer covering the concept, published in Ecoimagination.com.

Almost everything we own – our houses and cars and our very health – is insured. It works on a simple principal: the higher the risk, the higher the premium. It’s an age-old concept that ecological modelers have decided to apply to a new area: forest preservation.

A new proposal, published in the journal Conservation Letters, would create forest insurance to make the U.N. forest preservation program Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD, more effective. REDD is generally supposed to function by paying developing countries to protect their forests in exchange for carbon pollution credits. Currently the program has 42 partner countries across the globe. The program is crucial to the fight against climate change since deforestation and forest degradation accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and threatens biodiversity.

“REDD is a fantastic idea,” said Corey Bradshaw, director of ecological modeling at the University of Adelaide and co-author of the study. “You get a carbon advantage and biodiversity doesn’t get wiped out at the same time, it seems perfect.”

But it has a few major flaws that the insurance scheme, called iREDD, seeks to remedy.

REDD only works if the parties are honest and stick to the agreement. Bradshaw doesn’t have much faith that will happen. “If there’s a way to cheat, people will cheat. That’s the nature of all life, not just humans, but we excel at it,” he said. If, for example, a country is paid to conserve one forest but moves its deforestation efforts to an adjacent forest in order to get both money and timber, in terms of carbon offsets, that transaction was a failure. This phenomenon is called “leakage.”

Carbon-capture also only works if it’s maintained indefinitely. If a country accepts money for ten years and then cuts its forest the day after the agreement expires, then all of that conservation was for naught. This issue is called “permanence,” usually translated into an arbitrarily defined period of time set by countries in terms of decades or centuries. Read the rest of this entry »





Take a leaf from insurance industry’s book

18 04 2012

Just a quick one rehashing today’s media release on the iREDD paper I blogged about a while back. The full, online version is available upon request. Stay tuned for media coverage.

A group of environmental scientists say a problem-ridden economic model designed to slow deforestation can be improved by applying key concepts from the insurance industry.

REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is a UN-promoted scheme that allows countries to trade in carbon credits to keep forests intact. It is mainly targeted at developing nations where deforestation and exploitation are a major threat.

In a paper published online in the journal Conservation Letters, ecology researchers from Australia and South Africa argue that REDD projects can suffer from three major problems. They have proposed strengthening the scheme by using insurance policies and premiums, creating a new scheme known as iREDD.

“The idea of paying a nation to protect its forests in exchange for carbon pollution offsets can potentially reduce overall emissions by keeping the trees alive, and ensure a lot of associated biodiversity gets caught up in the conservation process,” says Professor Corey Bradshaw,, Director of Ecological Modelling at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute and a senior author of the paper.

“However, there are three main problems with REDD: these are known as leakage, permanence and additionality.” Read the rest of this entry »





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 »





1 million hectares annually – the forest destruction of Indonesia

30 09 2011

© A. Kenyon http://goo.gl/UpG3m

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 ConservationBytes.com 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 »





Australian ecologists support carbon tax

18 07 2011

© Herald Sun

Last week I came across a report that 60 % of economists support the newly proposed Australian carbon tax initiative, and that most believed the Coalition’s plan was inferior and would likely be more costly.

I thought that it would be good to survey ecologists on this very same issue because we are the people dealing with the fall-out of climate change to natural systems, and we are the group communicating it and its consequences to the greater public. Climate change effects on the Australian biota are already being witnessed, and if we don’t take the lead in this over-populated world of myopic, self-interested growth addicts, it’s our children who will suffer most.

Usually, ecologists and economists tend to disagree on major policies because of the general view that development is incompatible with functioning ecosystems; however in this case, it’s telling that the two seem to agree. If economists and ecologists together support something, it’s probably a good idea to give it a go. Read the rest of this entry »





100 actions to slow biodiversity loss

19 08 2010

I received an email a few days ago from Guillaume Chapron of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet) asking me to promote his ‘Biodiversity 100‘ campaign on ConservationBytes.com. I think it’s an interesting initiative, and so I’ll gladly spread the word.

Teaming up with George Monbiot of The Guardian, the Biodiversity 100 campaign seeks to encourage scientists and others to compile a list of 100 tasks that G20 governments should undertake to prove their commitment to tackling the biodiversity crisis.

Dr. Chapron writes: Read the rest of this entry »





New April Issue of Conservation Letters out now

22 04 2010

Low intensity fire in a longleaf pine-wiregrass system

Another great line up of papers has just come out in the April Issue of Conservation Letters:

CJA Bradshaw

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss VI

26 01 2010

The continuing saga of laughing at our own lunacy (see previous cartoon entries here).

© WWF

© C. Madden

CJA Bradshaw

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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.

CJAB

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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





Official Environment Institute video

11 06 2009

I’ve written about The University of Adelaide‘s new Environment Institute not too long ago (see post here), and now we’ve had the official launch. The people behind scenes have put together a great introductory video that we all witnessed for the first time last week. Happy to share it with ConservationBytes.com readers here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

A couple of other excellent parts of this evening include the venerable Robyn Williams‘ speech (listen here), and our Director’s, Professor Mike Young, encouraging kick off (listen here).

I’ve very proud to be a part of this exciting initiative.

CJA Bradshaw





June Issue of Conservation Letters

6 06 2009

Quick off the mark this month is the new issue of Conservation Letters. There are some exciting new papers (listed below). I encourage readers to have a look:

Policy Perspectives

Letters

CJA Bradshaw





Tropical forests worth more standing

4 06 2009
© R. Butler

© R. Butler

Keeping with the oil palm theme…

A paper just published online in Conservation Letters by Venter and colleagues entitled Carbon payments as a safeguard for threatened tropical mammals gets my vote for the Potential list.

We’ve been saying it again and again and again… tropical forests, the biodiversity they harbour and the ecosystem services they provide are worth more to humanity than the potential timber they represent. Now we find they’re even worth more than cash crops (e.g., oil palm) planned to replace them.

A few years ago some very clever economists and environmental policy makers came up with the concept of ‘REDD’ (reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), which is basically as system “… to provide financial incentives for developing countries that voluntarily reduce national deforestation rates and associated carbon emissions below a reference level”. Compensation can occur either via grant funding or through a carbon-trading scheme in international markets.

Now, many cash-greedy corporations argue that REDD could in no way compete with the classic rip-it-down-and-plant-the-shit-out-of-it-with-a-cash-crop approach, but Venter and colleagues now show this argument to be a bit of a furphy.

The authors asses the financial feasibility of REDD in all planned oil palm plantations in Kalimantan – Indonesia’s part of the island of Borneo in South East Asia. Borneo is also the heart of the environmental devastation typical of the tropics. They conclude that REDD is in fact a rather financially competitive scheme if we can manage to obtain carbon prices of around US$10-33/tonne. In fact, even when carbon prices are as low as US$2/tonne (as they are roughly now on the voluntary market), REDD is still competitive for areas of high forest carbon content and lower agricultural potential.

But the main advantage isn’t just the positive cash argument – many endangered mammals (and there are 46 of them in Kalimantan) such as the South East Asian equivalent of the panda (the orang-utan – ‘equivalent’ in the media-hype and political sensitivity sense, not taxonomic, of course) and the Bornean elephant (yes, they have them) are currently found in areas planned for plantation. So saving the forest obviously saves these and countless other taxa that only exist on this highly endemic island. Finally, Venter and colleagues found that where emission reductions were cheapest, these are also areas with higher-than-average densities of endangered mammals, suggesting that REDD is a fantastic option to keep developing countries in the black without compromising their extensive species richness and endemism.

Brilliant. Now if we can just get the economists and pollies to agree on a REDD model that actually works.

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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