Will the carbon economy be good for biodiversity?

Many countries have already adopted a range of social and economic mechanisms and incentives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions or improve carbon sequestration, and thereby reduce the rate and severity of global climate change. One of these is the imposition of a financial penalty for polluters (otherwise known as a carbon ‘tax’ or ‘price’). In Australia, the carbon-price revenues are being used to fund technologies that will reduce emissions, and to modify land management practices so as to improve rates of carbon retention and sequestration.

It sounds like good news for sustainability and conservation, but do reduced emissions and increased carbon sequestration always benefit biodiversity? TERN’s Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) recently convened a workshop of eminent Australian ecosystem scientists to consider this question.

The group, led by Professor Corey Bradshaw from the Environment Institute at The University of Adelaide, looked closely at the six main mechanisms by which carbon tax-driven changes to land management could affect Australian biodiversity:

  • environmental plantings for carbon sequestration;
  • policies and practices to deal with native regrowth;
  • fire management;
  • forestry;
  • agricultural practices including cropping and grazing; and
  • feral animal control.

‘While we concluded that most of these activities would probably also improve prospects for native biodiversity, our analyses revealed several potentially “bio-perverse” outcomes,’ Corey says.

‘For example, even a mixed plantation of native tree species could, in the process of successfully growing and sequestering carbon, reduce the amount of water available for ecosystems downstream, to the detriment of otherwise undisturbed native vegetation.’

However, the group also identified achievable planning and management actions that could avert these potentially negative outcomes.

‘The important message is that it is entirely possible for a carbon price to deliver simultaneous benefits in Australia – in terms of emissions, sustainable land use, and biodiversity. We still don’t know enough to plan for all the possible complications. No-one does. But we know enough to say that, from an overall biodiversity perspective, this is probably a good direction to be moving in,’ Corey says.

UPDATE APRIL 2013: The group’s 30-author manuscript, entitled ‘Brave new green world: the costs and benefits of a carbon economy for the conservation of Australian biodiversity’, has now been published in Biological Conservation. Click here to read more.

Will an economy with a carbon tax change the way we value the goods and services
provided by ecosystems?

Published in TERN e-News July 2012

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