Land-use change, mainly the conversion of tropical forests to agricultural land, is a massive source of carbon emissions and contributes substantially to global warming1,2,3. Therefore, mechanisms that aim to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation are widely discussed. A central challenge is the avoidance of international carbon leakage if forest conservation is not implemented globally4. Here, we show that forest conservation schemes, even if implemented globally, could lead to another type of carbon leakage by driving cropland expansion in non-forested areas that are not subject to forest conservation schemes (non-forest leakage). These areas have a smaller, but still considerable potential to store carbon5,6. We show that a global forest policy could reduce carbon emissions by 77 Gt CO2, but would still allow for decreases in carbon stocks of non-forest land by 96 Gt CO2 until 2100 due to non-forest leakage effects. Furthermore, abandonment of agricultural land and associated carbon uptake through vegetation regrowth is hampered. Effective mitigation measures thus require financing structures and conservation investments that cover the full range of carbon-rich ecosystems. However, our analysis indicates that greater agricultural productivity increases would be needed to compensate for such restrictions on agricultural expansion.
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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Program under grant agreement no. 282846 (LIMITS), no. 265104 (VOLANTE) and no. 603542 (LUC4C). Funding from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) in the SPP ED 178/3-1 (CEMICS) is gratefully acknowledged.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Popp, A., Humpenöder, F., Weindl, I. et al. Land-use protection for climate change mitigation. Nature Clim Change 4, 1095–1098 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2444
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