Recent research has profound implications for conservation organizations who base their model on carbon storage and sequestration.
Up to now, conservationists (and their donors) have assumed that conserving the maximum biodiversity also stores the most carbon. It’s supposedly a win-win. But two new studies turn this assumption its head.
In a July 2015 paper in Nature, the authors report that only a few “hyperdominant” species are responsible for most of the carbon stored in biomass, based on research in the Amazon rainforest. (Mongabay’s article on the Amazon carbon sequestration study provides a good synopsis of the paper.)
This work is consistent with another study on REDD and biodiversity published in Conservation Biology. This research highlights how meeting REDD+ targets will not substantially support biodiversity conservation. (The study is summarized in a blog article on the CIFOR website.)
The conclusion? Preserving the most species by leaving rainforest intact, or attempting to restore original biodiversity to degraded areas, is not the most efficient way to store carbon. That carbon would otherwise enter the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.
The findings present conservation organizations with a conundrum, especially those that emphasize carbon storage as a benefit of biodiversity conservation. Do they carry on business as usual, hoping that their donors and the public won’t care about the science? That would be disingenuous, if not dishonest. A better approach would be to switch focus and emphasize the importance of biodiversity conservation in its own right.
I’ve never been a big fan of tying biodiversity conservation to carbon storage because conflating the two amounts to a compromise that neither benefits conservation in the long run, nor significantly reduces carbon emissions. Indeed, paying a conservation organization to “offset” our personal carbon emissions simply assuages our guilt. Directly minimizing our personal carbon footprint by driving less and reducing power consumption is much more effective and empowering.
The point here is that carbon is essentially an economic and political problem, not a conservation problem. There are many ways to reduce emissions before we ever need conservation to be part of the solution. So should conservation organizations completely disentangle themselves from the carbon offset business? It may well be time to do so.
Sophie Fauset, S. et al. (2015) Hyperdominance in Amazonian forest carbon cycling. Nature Communications 6: 6857 doi:10.1038/ncomms7857
Murray, J. P. et al. (2015) Spatial patterns of carbon, biodiversity, deforestation threat, and REDD+ projects in Indonesia. Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12500