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Carbon-focused conservation may fail to protect the most biodiverse tropical forests


As one of Earth’s most carbon-dense regions, tropical forests are central to climate change mitigation efforts. Their unparalleled species richness also makes them vital for safeguarding biodiversity. However, because research has not been conducted at management-relevant scales and has often not accounted for forest disturbance, the biodiversity implications of carbon conservation strategies remain poorly understood. We investigated tropical carbon–biodiversity relationships and trade-offs along a forest-disturbance gradient, using detailed and extensive carbon and biodiversity datasets. Biodiversity was positively associated with carbon in secondary and highly disturbed primary forests. Positive carbon–biodiversity relationships dissipated at around 100 MgC ha–1, meaning that in less disturbed forests more carbon did not equal more biodiversity. Simulated carbon conservation schemes therefore failed to protect many species in the most species-rich forests. These biodiversity shortfalls were sensitive to opportunity costs and could be decreased for small carbon penalties. To ensure that the most ecologically valuable forests are protected, biodiversity needs to be incorporated into carbon conservation planning.

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We thank R. F. Braga, R. C. de Oliveira Jr, J. M. Silveira, F. Z. Vaz-de-Mello and R. C. S. Veiga for support with data collection, and R. A. Begotti, T. M. Cardoso, S. S. Nunes, J. V. Siqueira, C. M. Souza Jr and A. Venturieri for assistance processing the remotely sensed data. This work was supported by grants from Brazil (EMBRAPA SEG:; CNPq 574008/2008-0, 458022/2013-6, 400640/2012-0 and PELD 441659/2016-0; CAPES scholarships; FAPESP 2012/51872-5; and The Nature Conservancy Brasil), the UK (Darwin Initiative 17-023; NE/F01614X/1; NE/G000816/1; NE/F015356/2; NE/l018123/1; NE/K016431/1; NE/N01250X/1, NE/N01250X/1; and H2020-MSCA-RISE-2015 (Project 691053-ODYSSEA)) and Formas 2013-1571, and Australian Research Council grant DP120100797. J.F. and R.P. acknowledge CNPq productivity scholarships (process numbers, respectively: 307788/2017-2 and 308205/2014-6). Institutional support was provided by the Herbário IAN in Belém and LBA in Santarém. This is paper number 66 in the Sustainable Amazon Network series.

Author information

T.A.G., J.B. and J.F. designed the research, with input from E.B., A.C.L., S.F.B.F., J.L., V.H.F.O., R.R.C.S., I.C.G.V., L.E.O.C.A. and R.P. E.B., A.C.L., V.H.F.O., R.R.C.S., J.F., N.G.M. and J.L. collected the field data or analysed biological samples. S.F.B.F. and T.A.G. processed the remote sensing data. G.D.L. and J.R.T. analysed the data, with input from J.F., J.B., R.M.N., A.C.L. and T.A.G. G.D.L., J.F., J.B., T.A.G., A.C.L., R.M.N. and J.R.T. wrote the manuscript, with input from all authors.

Correspondence to Joice Ferreira or Gareth D. Lennox.

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Fig. 1: Carbon–biodiversity relationships in human-modified tropical forests.
Fig. 2: Biodiversity shortfalls from a carbon-maximization strategy.
Fig. 3: Carbon–biodiversity trade-offs.
Fig. 4: Biodiversity shortfalls when incorporating conservation opportunity costs.