Conflicting EU policies may hamper biodiversity conservation without mitigating climate change

Photo credits: Sabina Burrascano

We’ve just published a new paper: ‘Current European policies are unlikely to jointly foster carbon sequestration and protect biodiversity‘ on ‘Biological Conservation’ together with an international, interdisciplinary research group from five universities.

Is there the risk that European carbon policies may threaten grassland biodiversity? In the paper we raised the concern that carbon centered policies favouring one land-use (i.e. forest) over another (e.g. semi-natural grasslands) may not only fail at delivering the expected environmental benefits, but also create severe shortcomings, when biodiversity or other unique ecosystem services are considered. Given the context of high scientific uncertainty, we asked, what’s the situation in Europe? Do the current environmental policy acknowledge these uncertainties and balance coherently different environmental goals?

Err… not exactly…

It is commonly assumed that increasing forest area, will both provide important climate benefits by increasing carbon sequestration, and also support biodiversity. Afforestation, is thus often seen as a “win-win scenario”. Then it’s totally a good news that, between 1990 and 2015, EU-27 forests underwent a 12.9 million hectare (Mha) expansion on abandoned agricultural land , of which > 1.5 Mha were deliberately afforested. Both deliberate afforestation and natural expansion of forest may support forest-dwelling species and carbon storage, but recent evidence suggests that joined climate and biodiversity benefits are strongly context-dependent and the outcome of afforestation is often highly questionable. Particularly, afforestation may have negative outcomes in terms of both soil carbon storage and biodiversity when forest is planted in semi-natural grasslands (which is often the case!). This can be a problem when biodiversity-rich extensively managed grasslands are concerned. Although, at least in Europe, these grasslands, are often perceived as marginal for their relatively low-productivity, they contribute substantially to biodiversity conservation and carbon storage in soil.

 

Figure1_cleanedup.R1
The role of grasslands and forests in EU-27 for biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration and storage

Since EU is often observed as a leader in global environmental politics, we tried to understand whether the current EU environmental policies acknowledge these uncertainties and recognize and mitigate the potential conflicts between carbon management and biodiversity conservation.

The results are concerning: important conflicts exist between policies to mitigate climate change and increase carbon sequestration on the one hand, and to conserve biodiversity on the other, and this may lead to paradoxes, as in the case of biodiversity-rich, extensively managed grasslands: there is the risk that the EU may be paying to maintain these grasslands in some areas, while also be paying to convert similar grasslands into forests in other areas.

Figure3
Goals, documents, funding streams, outcomes and drawbacks of current policies related to biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation through Land-Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry. Light-green boxes refer to the funds and outcomes addressing the conservation of semi-natural grasslands, dark-green boxes to those addressing afforestation, and blue boxes to actions aimed at increasing the proportion of energy supplied by the use of biomass.

 

Indeed, we found a striking ambivalence between European policies and funding schemes addressing grassland conservation on the one hand (e.g. Habitats Directive, green payments within the Common Agricultural Policy) and those supporting afforestation on the other (e.g. rural development funds). Since the current land-use trends are still towards the abandonment of marginal farmland with the consequent increase in forest area, carbon-centered measures that further promote and allocate funding to afforestation may only marginally contribute to the international commitments to mitigate climate change with the risk that they could result in a substantial decline in grassland biodiversity and ecosystem services.

In our study, we suggested three measures that could contribute to more effective policy making:

  1. promoting the alignment of the decisions taken across different policy sectors;
  2. focusing on the whole range of ecosystem services and biodiversity issues rather than on carbon management only;
  3. appraising low-intensity managed systems for their multifunctionality.

Of course everything is slightly more complicated than this, and much more infos can be found in our study (which is free access until Sept 22). Let’s hope that this study will foster a more interdisciplinary approach both in science and policy-making when facing such complex problems!

Reference

Burrascano, S., Chytrý, M., Kuemmerle, T., Giarrizzo, E., Luyssaert, S., Sabatini, F.M., Blasi, C., 2016. Current European policies are unlikely to jointly foster carbon sequestration and protect biodiversity. Biol. Conserv. 201, 370-376.

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