"Land use change, mostly deforestation, accounts for 18-25% of global annual greenhouse gas emissions," said Lera Miles of UNEP-WCMC. "We support the initiative to conserve forests, which will help to address this growing problem as well as maintain valuable habitats; however, we are concerned about potential unintended negative impacts on some ecosystems. If forests are protected through REDD [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation] without addressing the underlying causes of forest clearance, such as increasing demand for food, then some clearance of natural ecosystems will simply shift to other areas and different habitats will be destroyed."

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is currently investigating ways of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) in developing countries. It has agreed a demonstration phase for the initiative, which will test approaches to reducing deforestation and to monitoring the reduction in carbon emissions.

"We’re suggesting that within that phase we should be looking whether displacement of land use change happens or not," Miles told environmentalresearchweb. "Clearly in the long term we want to make sure that climate change itself has minimum impacts on biodiversity but as the world has begun to attempt to tackle climate change we’ve become increasingly interested in ensuring that those mitigation measures also have limited impact on biodiversity."

Miles believes REDD is likely to come into force from 2012  onwards. Along with colleague Valerie Kapos, she suggests that people involved in conservation may need to refocus their priorities on forests with lower carbon density and non-forest ecosystems such as savannahs, grasslands and wetlands if the efforts to reduce deforestation in developing countries are successful. That would help preserve biodiversity in ecosystems with a lower carbon value.

"Currently, much conservation investment is focused on species-rich tropical forests," said Kapos. "A successful REDD mechanism would direct far more funds to tropical forests than are currently available for biodiversity conservation. We suggest that in such a scenario, strategies for conservation investment will need urgent re-thinking."

In collaboration with academics, the WCMC has been looking at how the carbon and biodiversity values of an ecosystem are related. "The distribution of biodiversity and of carbon stocks should help inform decision-makers which forests are valuable for both, so that you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck when you’re investing in avoided deforestation, and will also indicate which non-forest ecosystems have high carbon stocks and biodiversity," said Miles. "People have been thinking about broader relationships between biodiversity conservation and ecosystems services but I don’t think anybody’s asked these particular questions before."

The researchers reported their work in Science.