Thursday, August 1, 2019

August 2019 science journal article summary

Photo from Mick Garratt


Hot weather and a vacation in the woods have me thinking about climate change and habitat conversion (with articles on deforestation, landscape conservation, biodiversity, and livestock sustainability).

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Runting et al. 2019 argues that debates about 'land sparing' vs 'land sharing' miss an important point - good forest management is likely more important. They run several scenarios with different degrees of land sharing vs sparing, and conventional vs. improved management (reduced-impact logging, longer plantation rotation, and strictly enforcing protected areas). They saw the best outcomes with improved management and a mix of sparing and sharing (but favoring sparing, see Figure 4). Check out Figure 2 for what an 'optimal' scenario looks like compared to extreme sharing or sparing (but ignore the idea that tiny islands of protected areas or holes in larger ones are ideal - this is almost certainly an artifact). There's a blog on this one at

Kennedy et al. 2019 calculates how modified by human activities land around the world is. While only 5% of land area was 'unmodified', most of the world was 'moderately modified.' The authors argue that ecoregions with moderate modification may be good candidates for high priority conservation action, because they tend to have some relatively intact lands near to highly modified lands (which thus may pose a threat in the near future). In particular, the tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests biome (mostly in Mexico, India, Argentina, & SE Asia) was found to be the most threatened (high conversion relative to protection). While they didn't include all threats (e.g. logging, invasive species, climate change, and more) these data can be used to evaluate the suitability of lands for protection. You can explore the findings and maps at and you can download the data from

Bastin et al. 2019 estimate 900 million ha of land could be reforested globally (excluding cropland and urban areas), which could store 205 Gt of carbon (752 Gt CO2e). Alternatively, they predict we'll lose 223 million ha of forest by 2050 under business as usual. This paper has been broadly criticized for overstating the role of reforestation in climate mitigation (while reforestation is important, the authors' conclusion that it's the most important solution is a fringe opinion), especially since they call for a focus on boreal plantings which reduces albedo relative to bare snow and ice (thus reducing the climate mitigation contribution). Here's a blog covering the paper including the critique:

Diaz et al. 2018 looks at trade-offs between different forest management options for Douglas-fir in the NW US that could improve carbon storage. They compare managing the land to optimize net present value (NPV) to managing for sustained timber yield (with different levels of environmental management, e.g. longer rotations and some aspects of FSC certification). They find that environmental constraints boost carbon storage but hurt net present value. For example, one scenario had 26% more carbon, but 15% less timber and 21% lower NPV. They explore different policy options and challenges related to driving more carbon storage in timberlands.

Lambin et al. 2018 look at how effective company commitments to end deforestation are. The key finding is that public policy can significantly improve the likelihood of reducing deforestation relative to private action alone. For example, the Soy Moratorium combined sector-wide commitments with monitoring and public disincentives to clear forest in Brazil, with some success. They call for better company commitments (as called for by the Accountability Framework,, and recommend public policies including: legal reform & enforcement, land tenure reform, working with people clearing the most forest, broadening scope (companies, commodities, & regions), incentivizing all actors in the supply chain to participate (e.g. fertilizer companies rarely engage in these commitments), improving traceability and transparency, and increasing demand for deforestation-free products.

Schader et al. 2015 looks at how shifting what we feed cattle could improve sustainability. The idea is to feed them less food humans could eat (like corn), and more grass and by-products we can't or don't eat (e.g. distiller's grains, bran, oilseed cake, etc.), which also limits the total amount of livestock which can be raised in this way. Figure 1 is a great overview of what this would mean, for example a big reduction in pigs and chicken and only modest increases in other livestock (that can eat grass). But note a cardinal data visualization sin: inconsistent scaling of bar charts (e.g. the soil erosion from water chart makes it look like their preferred scenario has only 42% the erosion of the reference scenario, but it actually has 88% the erosion) which means you have to look carefully. Still, it's an important concept to explore, and a useful contribution to the conversation.

What are the barriers to using livestock practices that reduce GHGs? Kipling et al. 2019 asked Welsh ranchers and other stakeholders in a series of interviews and workshops. They focused on the conceptual framework rather than the practices, splitting them into practical limitations (e.g. costs and infrastructure, see Figure 1), knowledge limitations (being unaware of options and how they work, see Figure 2), and cognitive limitations and interests (complexity and competing values, see Figures 3 & 4). There aren't any big surprises here, but it's a useful overview, especially the quotes from ranchers for each concept they present.

Humphreys et al. 2019 looks at recent (since 1900) and historic plant extinction, and compares it to animal extinctions. The most interesting findings are that the IUCN Red List data on extinct plants are pretty poor (with 50 Red List species incorrectly listed as extinct, and 491 extinct species missing from the Red List), that 54% of plants reported extinct were later rediscovered (or reclassified to be the same as an extant species), that thousands of extant plant species are 'functionally extinct' (too few exist to form a viable population going forward), and that 55% of the 571 plant species that have gone extinct have done so since 1900. This is a short paper and worth reading.

Bastin, J.-F., Finegold, Y., Garcia, C., Mollicone, D., Rezende, M., Routh, D., … Crowther, T. W. (2019). The global tree restoration potential. Science, 365(6448), 76–79.

Diaz, D. D., Loreno, S., Ettl, G. J., & Davies, B. (2018). Tradeoffs in timber, carbon, and cash flow under alternative management systems for Douglas-Fir in the Pacific Northwest. Forests, 9(8), 1–25.

Humphreys, A. M., Govaerts, R., Ficinski, S. Z., Nic Lughadha, E., & Vorontsova, M. S. (2019). Global dataset shows geography and life form predict modern plant extinction and rediscovery. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3(July).

Kennedy, C. M., Oakleaf, J. R., Theobald, D. M., Baruch-Mordo, S., & Kiesecker, J. (2019). Managing the Middle: A Shift in Conservation Priorities based on the Global Human Modification Gradient. Global Change Biology, (June 2018), 1–17.

Kipling, R. P., Taft, H. E., Chadwick, D. R., Styles, D., & Moorby, J. (2019). Challenges to implementing greenhouse gas mitigation measures in livestock agriculture: A conceptual framework for policymakers. Environmental Science and Policy, 92(November 2018), 107–115.

Lambin, F., Gibbs, H. K., Heilmayr, R., Carlson, K. M., Fleck, L., Garret, R., … Walker, N. (2017). The role of supply-chain initiatives in reducing deforestation. Nature Climate Change, 8(February), 109–116.

Runting, R. K., Ruslandi, Griscom, B. W., Struebig, M. J., Satar, M., Meijaard, E., … Venter, O. (2019). Larger gains from improved management over sparing–sharing for tropical forests. Nature Sustainability, 2(1), 53–61.

Schader, C., Muller, A., El-Hage Scialabba, N., Hecht, J., Isensee, A., Erb, K. H., … Niggli, U. (2015). Impacts of feeding less food-competing feedstuffs to livestock on global food system sustainability. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 12(113).



p.s. If you'd like to keep track of what I write as well as what I read, I always link to both my informal blog posts and my formal publications (plus these summaries) at