Why measuring biodiversity co-benefits in carbon credits matters

This article is sponsored by NCX.

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

While some carbon projects claim to benefit biodiversity, few have actually quantified their impacts beyond a simple, qualitative effort, making it impossible for market forces to reward carbon projects that have greater benefits for biodiversity. And some carbon projects are almost certainly bad for biodiversity (think non-native monocultures of trees planted in native grasslands, for example). But these projects are not penalized in the market, at least so far.

So how do we make sure carbon projects are pro-biodiversity? Rigorous, quantitative measures of the impacts of carbon projects on biodiversity, both good and bad. While this will be a new area of expertise for many carbon developers, the talent pool is out there and ready to get to work (just ask any recent PhD in wildlife ecology if they’d be interested.)

Once carbon credits each come with an estimate of their impacts to biodiversity, carbon buyers can choose to buy credits that create more biodiversity, and carbon developers can modify their carbon programs to generate more benefits to biodiversity.

Ecosystems are carbon sinks

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

But so far, we haven’t done enough to make sure that biodiversity is protected and restored, leading to our current biodiversity crisis. And until positive impact for biodiversity is measured and valued by markets, biodiversity loss will continue.

Carbon markets and biodiversity

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

But so far, almost no carbon projects deliver credits with quantified biodiversity impacts reported. The uncomfortable truth is that not all carbon projects are equal in terms of their impacts to biodiversity. Indeed, maximizing carbon while ignoring biodiversity could lead to some very negative outcomes: actions such as planting non-native trees in native grasslands, or incentivizing fast-growing monocultures over multi-species polycultures in working forests can lead to rapid carbon sequestration, for a while. 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, resulting in biodiversity being a "checkbox" co-benefit to buyers. These shortcuts involve a lot of assumptions; for example, that more native vegetation is a good proxy f

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