Carbon or biodiversity conservation – you can’t have the best of both worlds

Forests remain stubbornly complex, forcing some tough decisions ahead.
Researchers assessed the distribution of biodiversity in Indonesia – mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and 8 plant families – using three measures of biodiversity richness.

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When trying to protect carbon stocks and biodiversity, the expression “to kill two birds with one stone” seems hardly appropriate.

And indeed, it seems that the REDD+ stone isn’t hitting the dual targets of storing carbon and protecting wildlife, according to recent research from Indonesia.

The new study indicates that it’s hard to find areas where conservation projects would be highly efficient at both combating climate change through carbon storage and preserving  the maximum of (threatened) plants and animals.

“When you look at where in the landscape those two environmental services peak, their high-priority areas rarely overlap,” says economist Sven Wunder, from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and co-author of the study on the location of carbon, biodiversity, deforestation threats and REDD+ projects in Indonesia.

Such projects are part of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation in tropical areas.

REDD+ could attract more investment if efforts to keep carbon locked in tropical forests under the scheme also delivered “co-benefits”, including biodiversity conservation benefits, according to the study.


Researchers assessed the distribution of biodiversity in Indonesia  (mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and 8 plant families), using three measures of biodiversity richness (total, threatened and restricted range species richness).

Our findings show that we can’t locate REDD+ projects in an area which is good for all species

Josil Murray

At first glance, Indonesia would be an ideal place to achieve both objectives:  it is the third largest tropical forest country in the world, with rich biodiversity, large forest carbon stocks, and a vibrant community of organizations eager to set up REDD+ projects.

The study’s lead author Josil Murray – a PhD candidate at Bangor University co-supervised by Wunder – worked with colleagues to create a database of active REDD+ projects in Indonesia.

“We mapped the location of projects and explored the spatial overlaps between carbon stocks, biodiversity, and projected deforestation threats, ” says Murray.

With that data, the authors started analyzing at a finer scale and a more nuanced picture emerged.

“Earlier attempts to measure overlaps – or “congruence” – between carbon-rich and biodiversity-rich areas were done at a much lower resolution which masked a lot of the finer patterns we saw,” says Murray.

“But zooming in within a country is very interesting, especially in Indonesia: relationships are so different when you look at the different islands, for example.”

Biodiversity itself is hard to pin down, and its measurement caused internal debates within the study team.

Sven Wunder, the economist of the group, suggested an index that would aggregate different dimensions of species richness, but the biodiversity experts disagreed.

“Our findings show that we can’t locate REDD+ projects in an area which is good for all species,” says Josil Murray. “That would be impossible for conservationists to implement, because different measures of biodiversity themselves do not overlap.”


Maps published by the scientists show that few areas present both very high carbon density and remarkable levels of biodiversity.

If I’m a carbon cowboy, with a single carbon bottom line in sight, I will choose only those areas with high yet threatened stocks

Sven Wunder

Some spots of particular interest appear along the coasts of Kalimantan and Sumatra – but there will always be a trade off, according to Murray.

“Species near extinction such as tigers and rhinos are in lowland forests, which are highly threatened, but have lower carbon content.”

“Our analysis showed that peat swamps tend to have both high carbon density and vertebrate richness, but they are known to have lower plant species richness,” says Murray.

When the locations of existing REDD+ projects in Indonesia were studied, the researchers found that these actually overlapped more with biodiversity rich areas than with carbon high-density areas.

“Because many early REDD+ projects are led by conservation organizations, they were probably more often located in high biodiversity areas rather than in high carbon areas,” says Sven Wunder.

But Murray says that those were pilot projects, and she expected larger interventions to target areas with more carbon storage potential in the future.

And that could shift REDD+ benefits away from biodiversity.


“If I’m a carbon cowboy, with a single carbon bottom line in sight, I will choose only those areas with high yet threatened stocks. Along the way I will come to conserve habitats too, but maybe not those of greatest national or international significance,” says Wunder.

The scientists offer one way of solving this dilemma: focus REDD+ projects on those forests that are at the highest risk of being cleared, rather than those with the highest existing carbon or biodiversity content.

“The level of threat can help link the two factors in this overlay exercise,” says Wunder. “After all, the dense primary forests atop Indonesia’s many 10,000 foot peaks are unlikely to suffer deforestation any time soon.”

While the researchers acknowledge that REDD+ investments in protected areas could be a controversial use of REDD+ resources, they indicate that. many protected areas “are under continuing threat… and enforcement is lax”.

If REDD+ funding could be used to increase the effectiveness of protected areas, “the benefits for biodiversity could be large” says the study.

Josil Murray also calls REDD+ practitioners’ attention to the importance of locating their projects where forests are most at risk, regardless of the congruence between carbon and biodiversity.

“The most heavily threatened forests in Indonesia are in lowland areas, which are also those where highly threatened species live.

Peat swamps are also important area to focus REDD+ projects because these are highly threatened ecosystems which are most at risk from palm oil expansion,” she says.

Focusing on peat swamps would also have co-benefits for local communities, Murray says, as they will lose fishing resources and protections against flooding when those wetland forests disappear.

 For more information on CIFOR’s work in carbon and deforestation, please contact Sven Wunder –

For more information on the content of this study, please contact Josil Murray –

 CIFOR’s research on REDD+ and Indonesia is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.


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Topic(s) :   Deforestation REDD+