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Decline in global forest diversity could cost billions per year, say researchers

Posted on 14 October 2016

A new study has demonstrated that a decline in forest diversity can have a significant economic impact on productivity that relies on healthy forest systems.

The research, conducted by scientists from 90 institutions, including teams at the Universities of York, West Virginia, and Minnesota, consolidated field-based data forming one of the largest global forest inventory databases in the history of forestry research. 

Published in Science, the study showed that with a decline in tree species diversity from the current level to just one species, commercial forest productivity across the world would also decline up to 66 per cent. 

Researchers calculated that the amount of commercial decline that is associated with the loss of tree species richness, such as timber production, would have an economic value of up to a $500 billion per year across the world. That amounts to more than double what it would cost to implement effective conservation for all of the Earth’s ecosystems on a global scale. 

Crucial monitoring

Dr Andrew Marshall, from the University of York’s Department of Environment, said: “The world’s forests constitute the most varied and diverse terrestrial ecosystems on the planet, so it is crucial that we monitor the health of our forests and the impact that any decline can have on the species that rely on it to survive, as well as how it supports local and global economies.” 

The research team, led by West Virginia University, collected data from more than 770,000 forest plots consisting of more than 30 million trees across more than 8,700 species. 

The study took into account all major global forest ecosystems across 44 countries and territories. It included some of the most distinct forest conditions on Earth, such as the northernmost in Siberia; the southernmost in Patagonia; the coldest in Oimyakon, Russia; the warmest in Palau, an archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean; and the most diverse in Bahia, Brazil. 

Species richness

Mo Zhou, Assistant Professor of forest economics at West Virginia University, said:  “The strongest message of this study is that the economic benefit of forest species diversity far exceeds the cost of preserving it, even when we only consider its role in maintaining the global commercial productivity of forests.” 

In addition to the high benefit-to-cost ratio of biological conservation, the report shows that species richness provides considerable social, ecological and environmental benefits, including climate regulation, habitat, water-flow regulation and genetic resources. 

Research also shows that the relationship between conservation and poverty is becoming more important, particularly in rural areas where jobs and livelihoods are dependent on forests. The loss of species in these areas, and the diminishing forest productivity that goes along with it, could exacerbate local poverty.

Management strategies

The findings demonstrate the importance of preserving species diversity and the need to reevaluate forest management strategies and conservation priorities globally. 

The new study will provide baseline information for the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. 

Positive biodiversity-productivity relationship predominant in global forests’ is published in Science.

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