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Implications of zero-deforestation palm oil for tropical grassy and dry forest biodiversity

Abstract

Many companies have made zero-deforestation commitments (ZDCs) to reduce carbon emissions and biodiversity losses linked to tropical commodities. However, ZDCs conserve areas primarily based on tree cover and aboveground carbon, potentially leading to the unintended consequence that agricultural expansion could be encouraged in biomes outside tropical rainforest, which also support important biodiversity. We examine locations suitable for zero-deforestation expansion of commercial oil palm, which is increasingly expanding outside the tropical rainforest biome, by generating empirical models of global suitability for rainfed and irrigated oil palm. We find that tropical grassy and dry forest biomes contain >50% of the total area of land climatically suitable for rainfed oil palm expansion in compliance with ZDCs (following the High Carbon Stock Approach; in locations outside urban areas and cropland), and that irrigation could double the area suitable for expansion in these biomes. Within these biomes, ZDCs fail to protect areas of high vertebrate richness from oil palm expansion. To prevent unintended consequences of ZDCs and minimize the environmental impacts of oil palm expansion, policies and governance for sustainable development and conservation must expand focus from rainforests to all tropical biomes.

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Fig. 1: Climatically suitable locations for rainfed oil palm expansion under ZDCs, by biome.
Fig. 2: Comparison of potential for rainfed, zero-deforestation oil palm expansion among biomes.
Fig. 3: Expected annual fresh fruit bunch (FFB) yields in locations climatically suitable for oil palm expansion under ZDCs, assuming high-fertilizer-input cultivation.
Fig. 4: Potential impacts of rainfed, zero-deforestation oil palm expansion on vertebrates.

Data availability

Existing datasets analysed in the article are available at references given within the manuscript. The final models of climatic suitability for rainfed and irrigated oil palm cultivation, and summary data of suitability per ecoregion, are available at https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/2RH6N. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The code used to generate oil palm suitability models and conduct analyses is available at https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/2RH6N.

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Acknowledgements

S.F. was supported by a joint studentship from Unilever and the University of York. We are very grateful to R. van Beek for providing the hydrological data (monthly water demand and supply) at 5 arcmin resolution. We thank C. Wheatley and C. Beale for assistance in running oil palm suitability models and analysing results, and D. Dent, A. Hodge and C. Thomas helpful comments during development of the Article.

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S.F., J.K.H., C.L.P., J.M.L. and H.K. conceived the study; S.F., C.J.M. and P.J.P. designed the models of oil palm suitability; C.L.P. conducted the biome classification; R.M.B. conducted refinements of species range maps; S.F. ran the suitability models, conducted the analyses and led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed critically to drafts of the paper and finalized the text.

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Correspondence to Susannah Fleiss.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Boxplots of aboveground carbon stocks and canopy closure for all non-cultivated land in the tropics (including primary vegetation, secondary vegetation and pasture, and excluding cropland, urban areas and tree plantations), for each biome.

Central bars show the median, lower and upper hinges show the first and third quartiles respectively, whiskers extend to the maximum and minimum values within 1.5*inter-quartile range, and outliers are plotted individually. x-axis labels denote total areas of non-cultivated land of each biome (across the tropics) and sample sizes of individual ~10-km grid-cells. Dashed lines represent the two sets of protection thresholds for zero-deforestation under the High Carbon Stock Approach (see main text Methods). Throughout the Main Article, we report results based on the lower-value thresholds, representing ‘greater habitat protection’ under zero-deforestation commitments.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 2 Comparison of areas projected as suitable for oil palm cultivation, between an agro-ecological model26 and the species distribution model presented in this article.

(a) For the species distribution model thresholded at Minimal Predicted Area95; (b) for the species distribution model thresholded at Minimal Predicted Area99; (c) for the species distribution model thresholded at Minimal Predicted Area100. We have reported results based on Minimal Predicted Area99 in the Main Article, and provide sensitivity analyses based on the other suitability thresholds and the agro-ecological model in Supplementary Information 35.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Climatically-suitable locations for rainfed and irrigated oil palm expansion under zero-deforestation commitments (ZDCs), by biome, assuming that up to 50% of surplus available water could be applied for irrigation.

(a): Neotropics; (b): tropical Africa; (c): tropical Asia and Australasia.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Climatically-suitable locations for rainfed and irrigated oil palm expansion under zero-deforestation commitments (ZDCs), by biome, assuming that up to 100% of surplus available water could be applied for irrigation.

(a): Neotropics; (b): tropical Africa; (c): tropical Asia and Australasia.

Extended Data Table 1 Biome classification for the 25 tropical ecoregions that we reclassified from the original Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World dataset20, based on our knowledge of these habitats, and the classification used in a previous study44

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Results, Discussion and Methods, including Supplementary Figures 1–25 and Supplementary Tables 1–9.

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Supplementary Data 1

Raster source data (.tif format) for Fig. 1 and Extended Data Figs. 2–4. All rasters are of extent −180° to 180° longitude, −23.5° to 23.5° latitude; 5 arcmin resolution; Geographic Coordinate System WGS 1984. Fleiss_Fig1_Source_Data.tif—Cells with a value of 0–100 are climatically suitable for oil palm expansion, and those with no value are unsuitable. Value classes suitable for oil palm expansion: 0 existing cropland, tree plantations or urban areas (all biomes); 3 ‘other’ biome; 5 tropical dry forest biome; 7 tropical moist forest biome; 11 tropical grassy biome; 20 locations protected by ZDCs (all biomes); 100 locations in IUCN class I or II protected areas (all biomes). Fleiss_ExDatFig2a_Source_Data.tif, Fleiss_ExDatFig2b_Source_Data.tif, Fleiss_ExDatFig2c_Source_Data.tif—Cell values: 0 unsuitable for oil palm cultivation (according to both the agro-ecological model and the species distribution model); 1 suitable for oil palm cultivation according to the agro-ecological model only; 2 suitable for oil palm cultivation according to the species distribution model only; 3 suitable for oil palm cultivation according to both models. Fleiss_ExDatFig3_Source_Data.tif, Fleiss_ExDatFig4_Source_Data.tif—See Source Data for Fig. 1 for suitable locations for rainfed oil palm expansion. For locations suitable for irrigated expansion: cells with a value of 0–100 are climatically suitable for oil palm expansion under irrigation, and those with no value are unsuitable. Value classes suitable for oil palm expansion: 0 existing cropland, tree plantations or urban areas (all biomes); 3 ‘other’ biome; 5 tropical dry forest biome; 7 tropical moist forest biome; 11 tropical grassy biome; 20 locations protected by ZDCs (all biomes); 100 locations in IUCN class I or II protected areas (all biomes).

Supplementary Data 2

Statistical source data for Supplementary Figures.

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Source Data Extended Data Fig. 1

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Fleiss, S., Parr, C.L., Platts, P.J. et al. Implications of zero-deforestation palm oil for tropical grassy and dry forest biodiversity. Nat Ecol Evol 7, 250–263 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01941-6

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