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Do current European policies jointly foster carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation?

The common assumption behind current environmental policies is that increasing forest area, besides providing climate benefits through carbon sequestration, will also support biodiversity, thus making afforestation a “win-win scenario”.

However, recent evidence suggests that joined climate and biodiversity benefits are strongly context-dependent and the outcome of afforestation is often highly questionable.

The increase in forest extent is frequently at the expense of grasslands. In Europe, grasslands managed at low intensity, which are often perceived as marginal for their relatively low-productivity, contribute substantially to biodiversity conservation and carbon storage in soil.

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

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

The expansion of forests to semi-natural grasslands can be due to either the grassland abandonment followed by spontaneous succession towards woody vegetation or deliberate afforestation programmes promoted by the carbon-centered policies of the European Union or by individual member states. 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 they may have negative outcomes in terms of both soil carbon storage and biodiversity when they happen in semi-natural grasslands.

Given that EU is often observed as a leader in global environmental politics, it is legitimate to ask whether the current EU environmental policies acknowledge these uncertainties and recognize and mitigate the potential conflicts between carbon management and biodiversity conservation.

Here I link a perspective article that tries to find an answer to this question and that was recently published in the scientific journal ‘Biological Conservation’ (http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1TXmy1R~e3Chf).

The results of our article is concerning. We found that important conflicts exist between policies to mitigate climate change and increase carbon sequestration on the one hand, and to conserve biodiversity on the other. For instance, although grasslands managed at low intensity contribute substantially to biodiversity conservation and carbon storage, there is the risk that the EU may be paying to maintain these grasslands in some areas, while also paying to convert similar grasslands into forests in other areas.

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.

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.

The study suggests 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.

I hope that this study encourages to face such complex problems by an interdisciplinary approach both in science and policy-making.

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