Why measuring biodiversity co-benefits in carbon credits matters

This text is sponsored by NCX.

Carbon and biodiversity are inextricably linked. As the marketplace for carbon credits continues to grow, it’s essential that we bring biodiversity along for the ride, not simply because it’s the correct thing to do but because biodiversity underpins all other ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration. The voluntary carbon market is under numerous scrutiny around how much real climate profit it’s delivering, but one other issue is brewing — carbon projects’ impacts to biodiversity.

While some carbon projects claim to profit biodiversity, few have actually quantified their impacts beyond an easy, qualitative effort, making it inconceivable for market forces to reward carbon projects which have greater advantages for biodiversity. And a few carbon projects are almost definitely bad for biodiversity (think non-native monocultures of trees planted in native grasslands, for instance). But these projects will not be penalized available in the market, a minimum of thus far.

So how can we be certain carbon projects are pro-biodiversity? Rigorous, quantitative measures of the impacts of carbon projects on biodiversity, each good and bad. While this shall be a recent area of experience for a lot of carbon developers, the talent pool is on the market and able to get to work (just ask any recent PhD in wildlife ecology in the event that they’d have an interest.)

Once carbon credits each include an estimate of their impacts to biodiversity, carbon buyers can decide to buy credits that create more biodiversity, and carbon developers can modify their carbon programs to generate more advantages to biodiversity.

Ecosystems are carbon sinks

Without biodiversity — the various diverse types of life on earth, from microbes to mushrooms to towering redwood trees and thundering herds of wildebeest — there’s no viable approach to meet our climate goals because ecosystems are critical carbon sinks. There’s also no scalable approach to get clean water, clean air, pollination for our crops or habitat for wildlife without it. It underpins every other ecosystem service we rely upon.

But thus far, we haven’t done enough to be certain that biodiversity is protected and restored, resulting in our current biodiversity crisis. And until positive impact for biodiversity is measured and valued by markets, biodiversity loss will proceed.

Carbon markets and biodiversity

Because biodiversity underpins the function of nature-based solutions (NBS) to climate change, NBS have huge potential to assist solve the biodiversity crisis. Many environmental NGOs have supported this position, and the voluntary carbon market has responded, leading to biodiversity emerging as a key indicator of carbon quality, alongside advantages to local communities and other co-benefits.

But thus far, almost no carbon projects deliver credits with quantified biodiversity impacts reported. The uncomfortable truth is that not all carbon projects are equal when it comes to their impacts to biodiversity. Indeed, maximizing carbon while ignoring biodiversity could lead on to some very negative outcomes: actions resembling planting non-native trees in native grasslands, or incentivizing fast-growing monocultures over multi-species polycultures in working forests can result in rapid carbon sequestration, for some time. Projects built on this carbon tunnel vision will undermine biodiversity, which in turn threatens long-term carbon sequestration as disease, fire and other disturbances sweep through these poorly functioning and simplified ecosystems.

Developers that do report on biodiversity typically take a shortcut approach, leading to biodiversity being a “checkbox” co-benefit to buyers. These shortcuts involve numerous assumptions; for instance, that more native vegetation is an excellent proxy for high-quality habitat for multiple species, or that a project that overlaps with the worldwide ranges of rare or sensitive species signifies that those species occur inside the project boundaries or profit from the project’s actions.

Using shortcuts makes numerous sense when quantitative approaches just aren’t possible or feasible, but rather a lot is lost in the method. Market-based mechanisms need quantitative measurements of impact to work, with a variable amount of biodiversity per credit. Without quantified measurements, buyers can’t distinguish amongst credits that produce slightly or numerous biodiversity profit. Consequently, projects that produce more profit can’t be rewarded, and developers will not be incentivized to enhance their biodiversity metrics, so the virtuous cycle that markets can produce, at their best, has not began for biodiversity that accompanies carbon projects.

Going beyond the checkbox approach to biodiversity co-benefits

Luckily, we live in a golden age for measurement and modeling of biodiversity. Rapid progress is occurring in field-based data collection tools, distant sensing of habitat attributes, and computing power and modeling approaches. This implies we are able to move towards quantitative models of biodiversity additionality and apply that to carbon credits or for standalone biodiversity credits. Carbon projects with essentially the most advantages to biodiversity could be rewarded, and projects that damage biodiversity could be identified and glued.

Responsibility for making quantitative biodiversity co-benefits a reality is shared across the carbon crediting space. Developers should work to quantify biodiversity relatively than using shortcuts. It will mean employing internal staff or external consultants with deep expertise in biodiversity measurement and modeling. On the opposite side of the marketplace, buyers can require greater than a “checkbox” for a biodiversity co-benefit, and ask for a quantified amount of profit, with realistic baselines, uncertainty and additionality demonstrated.

As a primary step, NCX is working to measure the impacts of our forest carbon program on biodiversity. Starting with birds that nest in landscapes across the Southern United States, we’re developing multi-species models of habitat quality for your entire bird community, in order that trade-offs between species and their habitat needs are incorporated into our carbon models. The teachings we learn will allow us to enhance our forest carbon program and future biodiversity focused projects. It should yield more advantages for birds, and in addition to grow our biodiversity modeling expertise so we are able to start to contemplate other species across the forest ecosystems we work in, resembling bats, terrestrial mammals and more.

We all know we are able to’t do that alone — we’ll need others to hitch us on this journey if we truly need to put markets to work for biodiversity. Are you seeking to become involved in data sharing, method development, certification approaches or investment into biodiversity projects?

Join the discussion in a webinar, The Path to Nature Positive Carbon Credits Starts with Higher Measurement, or send us an email at [email protected].


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