Biodiversity, ecosystem functions and policy across a tropical forest modification gradient

Lead Research Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Department Name: Atmospheric Chemistry and Effects

Abstract

Tropical forests support over two-thirds of the world's terrestrial biodiversity. However, between 35% and 50% of tropical forests have already been degraded, and the rate of deforestation continues to increase. Secondary forests, plantations and other human-modified habitats now dominate tropical landscapes, leading to concerns that human degradation of these landscapes will elevate greenhouse gas emissions and jeopardise ecosystem services at local, regional and global scales. The area of protected forests is unlikely to increase greatly in the future, so the persistence of tropical biodiversity and the important biogeochemical cycles and ecosystem services associated with it will depend to a large extent on the way we treat the wider tropical landscape. The Human Modified Tropical Forests programme seeks to 'significantly improve our understanding of the links between biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles in tropical forests' through 'integrated observations and modelling linked to gradients in forest modification'. To contribute towards this goal our consortium will use surveys along a modification gradient within the SAFE landscape in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) to detect patterns, combined with manipulative field experiments to gain a mechanistic understanding of biodiversity-function linkages. We will assess links between above- and belowground components of tropical biodiversity and investigate the extent to which different elements of biodiversity (e.g. species of conservation concern) are associated with measures of ecosystem function (decomposition processes and biogeochemical cycles). We will then upscale from the experimental sites to the landscape-scale to generate spatial layers of ecosystem function, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas fluxes to inform policy scenario modeling. Our work will thus (1) characterise soil microbial function and measuring associated biogeochemical fluxes; (2) Experimentally test the links between aboveground biodiversity and soil function; (3) Build and add to existing datasets for bird and mammals, and explore correlations between ecosystem functioning and the distribution of species of conservation concern; and (4) Explore policy scenarios for optimising biodiversity and function protection.

Planned Impact

The project will generate high quality research that will improve our comprehension of the impact of anthropogenic land-use alterations on the natural world. It will contribute greatly to the pool of excellent studies being published by UK academics, supporting our reputation as world-leaders in the field of global environmental change. To this end, the project is highly relevant to the NERC mission and delivers in relation to both its strategic 'biodiversity' and 'climate system' themes.
Who might benefit from this research? We have identified 5 key stakeholder groups listed below.
1: Academic community: please refer to the 'Academic Beneficiaries' section for details.
2: Oil palm and forestry industry groups: including oil palm producers (e.g. Sime Darby, Benta Wawasan), government agencies (e.g. Malaysian Palm Oil Board, MOPB; Indonesian Palm Oil Association, GAPKI; Sabah Forestry Department; Sabah Parks Department), research organisations (e.g. Center for International Forestry Research, CIFOR; Royal Society's SEnSOR programme) and consultancies (e.g. WildAsia Malaysia, Daemeter Consulting Indonesia, People Nature Consulting Indonesia, REDD+ Task Force).
3: UK and EU policy-makers: such as the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC; UK government department for international climate policy), Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra; producer of the UK Statement on Sustainable Palm Oil), Department for International Development (DFID; funder of research into poverty alleviation through oil palm production), and the European Commission (who make EU-wide decisions pertaining to palm oil production and consumption via instruments such as the Renewable Fuels Directive).
4. Non-governmental organisations: comprising of those working in forest-agricultural landscapes (e.g. Hutan- Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, Greenpeace, WWF, Conservation International, Rainforest Foundation).
5: General public: who demonstrate a keen awareness of tropical forest ecology, threatened species, oil palm production and climate change issues.

How might they benefit from this research?
1: Academic community: please see 'Academic Beneficiaries'
2 & 4. Oil palm and forestry industry groups/Non-governmental organisations: our project findings will provide recommendations on how to maximise profitability of oil palm plantations while maintaining, or even enhancing, ecosystem function and biodiversity. This state-of-the-art knowledge will benefit organisations interested in both sustainable oil palm production and forestry, particularly in the context of policies (REDD+) and certification schemes (e.g. Forest Stewardship Council, FSC; Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, RSPO; Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels) . By engaging these organisations in knowledge exchange throughout the programme of research, we can ensure that our work will be of value in terms of 'real-world' implementation and impact.
3: UK and EU policy-makers: increasing sustainable oil palm agriculture and reducing forest degradation/loss are key policy objectives globally. Our results will provide an informative evidence-base to support policy decision-making in this area, which is currently highly controversial, contradictory and dynamic (e.g. the recently introduced 'Nutella Amendment' in France, that has seen taxes on palm oil products increase by 300% due to environmental concerns; the recent decision by the EU to advocate palm oil produced according to RSPO guidelines as 'sustainable').
5: General public: the project will be of interest to the general population worldwide, as indicated by the substantial media coverage on tropical biodiversity and the associated impacts of human activities. This is an important means by which we can engage/inform the public about the value of biodiversity (e.g. its intrinsic worth, economic significance, ecosystem service provision) and promote awareness of sustainable use and conservation.
 
Description The most significant achievements to data are an unprecedented comprehensive data set of greenhouse gas fluxes (CO2, N2O, CH4 and VOC) and associated soil variables comparing forests of different degradation with oil palm plantations of different ages and riparian buffer strips.
Objective 1a: 'Quantify soil CO2, N2O, CH4 and VOC fluxes across a gradient of tropical land-use intensity'; Objective 1b: investigating the impact of changes in rainfall on soil nitric oxide, N2O, CH4 and CO2 fluxes (laboratory based scenario studies); Objective 1c: 'The impact of oil palm management on soil nutrient translocation to riparian buffer strips and waters' (Top-up fund). Objective 1 has been partially met: all measurements are completed, and data are currently analysed in preparation for peer review publication.
Objective 2: 'Explore the relationship between the structure and composition of soil microbial communities and biogeochemical cycles and fluxes': Microbial diversity analysis is in progress.
Objective 3: 'Generate predictive models of CH4, N2O, VOC fluxes and soil CO2 efflux using the JULES land surface model, and compare modelled values with those obtained empirically': Emission factors are under development based on objective 1 data and the literature. Preparation of JULES parameters are in progress
Exploitation Route The findings from this project are relevant to
1) The policy maker and stakeholder: the impact of oil palm on the country's greenhouse gas burden. The importance of buffer strips in reducing nitrogen leaching to rivers and knowledge that nitrous oxide emissions from riparian forests are much larger than from a 'normal' forest, and can be as large as from oil palm plantations.
2) The climate scientist: data to validate climate models
3) The molecular scientist: advancements in understanding the role of microbial biodiversity in determining greenhouse gas emissions, especially those linked to the nitrogen cycle.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Environment

 
Description The human modified forest program has provided the opportunity for the biodiversity and biogeochemistry scientific community to come together and learn from each other and improve understanding of the complexity of the environmental problems we try to solve. This is an important impact within the academic community (although not to be reported here). At the proposal writing stage only very few studies on the impact of landuse change from tropical forests to oil palm were available in the peer reviewed literature. The impact of our contribution has created general awareness amongst the academic community and their students via lectures and talks at conferences which are attended by the academic community as well as policy makers and stakeholders ( in our case the oil palm industry), i.e. the 'Heart of Borneo Conference: Enabling and Empowering Conservation Through Science-Policy Interface, Conservation Finance and Community Engagement' 8-9 Nov 2016 and 'The International conference on Oil Palm and the Environment (ICOPE): Sustainable Palm Oil and Climate Change: The Way Forward Through Mitigation and Adaptation, 16-18 March 2016, Bali, Indonesia'. Furthermore, we have created awareness of greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm plantations by directly talking to the staff working for the oil palm companies and also through presenting talks at the Universiti of Malaysia Sabah. We have disseminated our findings at EGU meetings by co-convening and presenting at tropical / oil palm related sessions, and are currently writing peer review publications on the impact of oil palm plantations on greenhouse gas emissions.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Education,Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description NERc Human Modified Tropical Forest Program - Top up Fund
Amount £312,495 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2016 
End 03/2020
 
Title GHG chamber field data 
Description Drewer, Julia, Leduning, Melissa, Sentian, Justin, & Skiba, Ute. (2019). Soil greenhouse gas fluxes and associated parameters from forest and oil palm in the SAFE landscape [Data set]. Zenodo. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3251899 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Base of peer reviewed publication in preparation 
URL http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3251899
 
Title GHG lab study data 
Description Drewer, Julia, Leduning, Melissa, Zhao, Jun, Gubry-Rangin, Cécile, & Skiba, Ute. (2019). Linking potential greenhouse gas and NO fluxes to soil microbial communities in incubation experiments with soil from the SAFE landscape [Data set]. Zenodo. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3251901 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Base of peer reviewed publication 
URL http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3251901
 
Title Riparian GHG data 
Description Drewer, Julia, Kuling, Harry John, Sentian, Justin, & Skiba, Ute. (2019). Soil greenhouse gas fluxes along transects from oil palm to riparian forests in the SAFE landscape [Data set]. Zenodo. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3251886 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact will be base of peer reviewed publication 
URL http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3251886
 
Title Soil VOC dataset 
Description Published dataset of measured soil VOC fluxes 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Dataset base for peer reviewed publication in preparation 
URL http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3698115
 
Description PhD student Hydrology 
Organisation Malaysian University of Sabah
Department Faculty of Science and Natural Resources
Country Malaysia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This PhD studentship is funded by the NERC Human Modified Tropical Forest Program, and awarded to the Universiti of Malaysia Sabah. Julia Drewer and Ute Skiba will contribute to the PhD student supervision with advice on design of the experiment, facilities and biogeochemistry expertise.
Collaborator Contribution The main PhD student supervision and hydrology expertise will be provided by Prof Kawi Bidin and Dr Justin Sentian, Faculty of Science and Natural Resources , UMS. The PhD candidate will be Harry John Kuling, who appears to be very capable. CEH (U Skiba and J Drewer) have co-supervised his MSc project in collaboration with the Universiti of Malaysia Sabah.
Impact Very slow negotiations between the University Malaysia Sabah and SEARRP regarding the money transfer for this studentship has caused problems, in that the student allocated to this study in 2015 could not start. This has now been resolved (Dec17!), and we hope that a new student will start in Oct 2018. The saga continues: an email (8th March 2019) indicated that SEARRP has transfered the money, but the Universiti of Malaysia Sabah has not received the money. The student will not be able to start before autumn 2019.
Start Year 2017
 
Description PhD studentship: Molecular biodiversity 
Organisation Malaysian University of Sabah
Department Biotechnology Research Institute
Country Malaysia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Microbial Diversity and Functional Activities Relationship to Soil Properties and Microclimate Across Land-use Gradient, CEH will co-supervise the PhD student, by providing advise on molecular (Rob Griffiths) and biogeochemistry (Ute Skiba) questions. This studentship is funded by the NERC Human Modified Tropical Forest Program.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Vijay Kumar, Universiti Malaysia Sabah is a molecular biologist with access to good modern molecular facilities and in charge of this PhD project.
Impact Very slow negotiations between the University Malaysia Sabah and SEARRP regarding the money transfer for this studentship has caused problems, in that the student allocated to this study in 2015 could not start. This has now been resolved (Dec17!), and we hope that a new student will start in Oct 2018. The saga continues: an email (8th March 2019) indicated that SEARRP has transferred the money, but the Universiti of Malaysia Sabah has not received the money. The student will not be able to start before autumn 2019. UMS is currently looking for a potential PhD candidate.
Start Year 2016
 
Description Universiti Malaysia Sabah 
Organisation Malaysian University of Sabah
Department School of Science and Technology
Country Malaysia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The collaboration with Dr Justin Sentian is formalised through a subcontract. Prior to this HMTF project I collaborated with Dr Sentian co-supervising a MSc student funded by CEH internal funds and linked to the NERC OP3 project.
Collaborator Contribution Universiti Malaysia Sabah staff and students carry out most of the greenhouse gas and soil measurements, and sample analysis for soil properties is done by Forest Research Sandakan.
Impact Skiba,U., Rees,R., Siong,J. & Sentian,J. 2012. Non CO2 greenhouse gas sources from managed and natural soils -: fluxes and mitigation. Journal of Oil Palm and The Environment, 3, 107-113.
Start Year 2013
 
Description Presentation at BSSS 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation at Soils and Sustainable Development Goals - BSSS Annual Conference
Soils and Sustainable Development Goals conference at Lancaster University on Tuesday 4th and Wednesday 5th September 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.soils.org.uk/2018-annual-conference-soils-and-sustainable-development-goals
 
Description R Griffiths. Department Seminar "Illuminating the black box of soil Diversity and function" University of York, January 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact University departmental seminar
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Universiti Malaysia Sabah, lecture at the Science and Technology Dept. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Ute Skiba gave a general lecture on greenhouse gases: emission sources, how they are produced and the relevance to landuse change from forest to oil palm in Malaysia. The main purpose was education, going beyond what is taught in the undergraduate curriculum. The talk sparked interest and many questions, and hopefully made an impact, but we have not had this feedback.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015