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Q: What’s missing from forest carbon accounting? A: Animals

Animals and their vital, now-compromised role in nourishing carbon-storing forests are crucial to humanity’s plans to fight climate change.
May 1, 2019

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The centerpiece of humanity’s plans to fight climate change by ending deforestation, best known by the acronym of REDD+—short for Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus conservation—was first negotiated nearly fifteen years ago and finalized in 2015. It’s an ambitious, planetary-scale program, and though various details have been criticized, it’s still an extraordinary achievement. Yet something crucial appears to be missing: animals.

“Forest ecosystems are being reduced to their carbon content,” write sustainability scientists Torsten Krause of Lund University and Martin Nielsen of the University of Copenhagen in the journal Forests. “Despite the rhetoric of biodiversity co-benefits, fauna is not treated as a functional component of forests.”

Throughout the developing world forests that are the focus of REDD+, argue Krause and Nielsen, overhunting has dramatically diminished populations of large- and medium-sized mammals. This widely-documented phenomenon has resulted in what some scientists call “empty forest syndrome.”

That’s troubling not just because extinction and extirpation is a tragedy in principle. It decreases the carbon-storing potential of forests. Those lost mammals tend to eat fruits belonging to the largest trees; later they defecate the seeds, dispersing them across landscapes with a healthy dose of fertilizer. Disrupting that cycle alters forest composition, with smaller vegetation predominating and total biomass—and thus carbon storage—diminished.

It’s a complex process, and scientific estimates of biomass decrease vary widely. In the Brazilian Amazon, defaunation has been linked to above-ground biomass loss of between 3 and 38 percent. One computational simulation of defaunation across Africa, India and South America produced a biomass contraction of between 2 and 12 percent. It’s enough to say that “defaunation will undermine REDD+ climate change mitigation efforts,” write Krause and Nielsen, and that “hunting in tropical forests constitutes a climate threat.”

Despite this, REDD+ forest monitoring relies largely on satellite measurements of forest cover, and both biodiversity and the threat of animal loss receive only sporadic attention. Krause and Nielsen reviewed both top-level REDD+ planning documents and national implementation efforts in Colombia, Ecuador, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Indonesia; the top-level documents gave biodiversity only a cursory mention, while defaunation and hunting, and the resulting implications for carbon storage, were entirely absent.

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Biodiversity appeared in national-level plans—but “fauna and hunting were rarely mentioned,” and “no single document mentioned all three terms,” found the researchers. In annual reports prepared for the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility—a coalition of governments, businesses, civil society groups, and indigenous groups that implements REDD+ activities—none “goes into detail about what constitutes biodiversity or mentions hunting as a threat to forest fauna.”

Krause and Nielsen did find that sub-national, on-the-ground projects are more likely to consider biodiversity and hunting explicitly. The link to carbon storage is rarely explicit, though, and top-level direction is lacking.

What might account for these omissions? Krause and Nielsen speculate that biodiversity added yet another layer of complexity to REDD+ negotiations already criticized for being overly technocratic and complicated. It was enough to hope that simply protecting forests would also safeguard the animals living there. REDD+ was also criticized, especially in its earlier iterations, for paying too little attention to the well-being of people, particularly indigenous people, who rely on forests for their livelihood. As hunting is important for dietary and cultural reasons, spotlighting it may have been a sensitive issue.

It’s not going away, though. Krause and Nielsen urge policymakers and people involved in sustainable forestry projects to find ways of addressing defaunation that are fair to people while protecting biodiversity and, ultimately, the ability of forests to fight climate change. “The assumption that forest cover and habitat protection equal effective biodiversity conservation is misleading and must be challenged,” write the researchers. “Otherwise, there is a risk that we lose the forest for the trees.”

Source: Krause, Torsten and Nielsen, Martin Reinhardt. “Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees: The Oversight of Defaunation in REDD+ and Global Forest Governance.Forests, 2019.

Art: Henri Rousseau. Tropical Forest with Apes and Snake (1910)


About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science, and the author of The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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