Land use change, while most often associated with the loss of natural habitat, could be a cost-effective method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving threatened species. A new study in Nature entitled, Cheap carbon and biodiversity co-benefits from forest regeneration in a hotspot of endemism, investigated carbon stocks, biodiversity and economic values in the western Andes of Colombia, a threatened ecosystem rich in endemic species where land is predominantly used for cattle farming.
Results of the study found that if farmers were to allow forest to regenerate on their land, foregoing cattle farming, they would match or increase their current incomes through receiving payments for carbon. Under current carbon markets the price per tonne of carbon dioxide trees remove from the atmosphere is $1.99. Farmers’ land would be leased for 30 years and they would be paid for the carbon grown.
Aside from the benefits for climate change mitigation, forest regeneration would also support biodiversity. In their study, researchers found 33 out of the 40 red-list bird species in the area existed in secondary forest, compared to 11 in cattle pastures.
While researchers claim the regeneration of forest on cattle land in this region to be a win-win, for climate change, biodiversity and farmers’ livelihoods, such a study fails to take into account the sustainability of carbon payments through, for example, REDD+, particularly if cattle prices increase on the global market, the growing demand for livestock products and the broader role livestock play in the livelihoods and cultures of communities in the region.
Another study recently published found, through the use of an economic model of global land use, that the intensification of cattle farming in Brazil, through either a tax on cattle from conventional pasture or a subsidy for cattle from semi-intensive pasture, could reduce deforestation and associated greenhouse gas emissions, and double productivity in pasturelands. Cattle ranching in Brazil is thought to be responsible for 75 to 80% of deforestation in the country.
The study found that both the tax and the subsidy were effective at reducing rates of deforestation to around half of Brazil’s national deforestation policy targets but may differ in terms of their long-term costs, the degree to which they displace agricultural activity and their impact on beef production and consumption.
There is no doubt that there is significant potential to mitigate climate change through livestock farming and these two papers illustrate potential pathways to reducing greenhouse gases through sparing or saving forested land, while at the same time increasing productivity or incomes. While more research is needed to investigate the broader social and ecological impacts of such land use policies, incentives and payment mechanisms, finding win-wins to development and climate change challenges is a cause for optimism.