As international programs that pay developing countries to keep carbon locked in forests and soils proliferate, the United Nations is examining how the battle against global warming can bolster biodiversity and local economies.
Valerie Kapos, a forest ecologist at the U.N. Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, has teamed up with colleagues from six countries to develop maps that overlay carbon stocks with biodiversity, protected areas, population, poverty and economic activities.
The goal is to help managers of carbon-storage programs see the big picture -- literally.
Want to know where carbon stocks overlap with biodiversity in Ecuador, Tanzania and China? Thanks to the U.N. effort, there are maps for that.
"The idea was to provide them with tools that would help them to visualize the kinds of things they should be considering and how they are related to each other," Kapos said.
Along with Ecuador, Tanzania and Jiangxi Province, China, the team has created maps for Nigeria, Honduras and Cambodia. They show which areas have the potential for multiple benefits, areas where different priorities may clash, as well as large, unprotected carbon sinks.
For example, Tanzania's carbon stocks are estimated to be close to 12 metric gigatons, the equivalent of China's and the United States' carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption in 2008, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. About a third of the country's carbon is stored in protected areas, but nearly a quarter falls outside of these areas in carbon-dense areas.
"In most countries, there was one big block of relatively high carbon that was not in a protected area," Kapos said.
With two-fifths of its land covered by forest, Tanzania is a pilot country for the U.N. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) program. But the east African country is also home to 359 mammal species, and there is a huge potential for REDD areas to overlap with areas that are rich with animals.
Likewise, the mountainous Jiangxi Province in southeast China holds nearly 500 metric megatons of carbon, the majority of which is stored in needleleaf and broadleaf forests. Almost half is stored in areas important for endemic or endangered species, such as the clouded leopard.
Preserving forests for carbon would also protect valuable areas for nontimber forest products, such as bamboo, nuts and medicinal plants, and prevent soil erosion, which is a major problem in many parts of China.
Multiple benefits do not always overlap. For example, in Nigeria, chimpanzees live in both forests and the savannah. While REDD resources may help protect the chimp's forest habitat, it is less likely to target the grassland, which does not hold as much carbon.
"They can't assume REDD is going to deliver their biodiversity conservation," Kapos said.
The same is true for economic activities. In Tanzania, savannah areas that are important for sustainable products such as honey and gum have low to medium carbon, so they may not be a top priority for REDD.
Examples in Ecuador
In some cases, economic activities like oil and gas drilling heavily overlap with rich carbon stores. In Ecuador, most of the oil blocks that are currently in use or contracted out for exploration fall within the lowland Amazon forest, where 46 percent of the country's above-ground biomass carbon is stored.
"We are trying to coordinate with the other sectors and trying to somehow prove why it is important to conserve and why REDD policies or incentive policies like Socio Bosque are important," said Daniela Carrión, an economist for Ecuador's climate change undersecretary who is overseeing the implementation of REDD programs.
Two years ago, Ecuador began its own domestic REDD program, called Socio Bosque (Forest Partner), which aims to conserve more than 6.5 million acres of native forest and other Andean mountain habitats by 2015. The government plans to use the new maps to improve this program based on some of the findings, Carrión said.
In Ecuador's program, conservation targets were prioritized based on risk of deforestation, ecosystem services -- which includes things like water filtration and biodiversity -- and poverty levels. While a third of the top priority areas contain high levels of carbon, the mapping process revealed 20 percent contain low levels. This may be due to different criteria, or not having the most up-to-date data when the priorities were originally set.
Also, 70 percent of Ecuador's 5.2 metric gigatons of carbon is stored in the soil. Interestingly, agricultural areas contain about 20 percent of the country's soil carbon, which means farming practices could be tailored to maximize carbon storage.
It turns out lowland Amazon forest is not very good for trapping soil carbon. When soil carbon is taken into account, its storage capacity drops to 27 percent of total carbon. However, it is still a prime target for conservation because of its rich biological diversity. More than 40 percent of areas with both high biodiversity and large carbon stores fall outside of protected areas.
"We need to work more in how to link biodiversity with REDD activities," Carrión said. "We know there is a link, but it is still treated as a co-benefit."
Ecuador's maps also show the potential impact REDD programs could have on people. A majority of the biomass carbon falls in indigenous peoples' territories, which also coincide with high levels of poverty. REDD programs that conserve forest could be a significant resource to help the poorest in Ecuador, Carrión said.
It was not easy to pull together all the different sources of data required to build these maps, Kapos said. Some countries like China had reams of data, while others did not have the most recent land-cover information (how much of each vegetation types). Many countries do not have their own soil carbon estimates, and if they did, they were buried in 30-year-old notebooks kept by agronomists. The U.N. scientists worked with people in each country so now they can continue to update the maps on their own.
The final product is still fairly coarse -- the information compiled is not detailed enough to define exactly how much carbon is located in a specific parcel of land. But it is helpful to provide a general estimate for overview planning since "people are going ahead and making decisions without it being there," Kapos said.
However, more detailed measurements are being completed by governments or scientists, like the Carnegie Institution of Science's Greg Asner, who is using LiDAR (a light imaging and ranging process) to map carbon in the Amazon (Greenwire, Sept. 14), which will enable more sophisticated REDD programs.
But even the process of making these maps helped raise awareness about various potential benefits of REDD programs and opened up communications between different departments. This was especially true in Cambodia, where it was unclear which departments managed different areas of land.
"Being able to say how much carbon was under whose jurisdiction turned out to be quite important for getting people to sit down around a table and talk about what was going to happen next," Kapos said.
Click here to see the carbon biodiversity maps.