Efforts to protect tropical forests in Southeast Asia for the carbon they store may fail because protection payments are too low according to University of East Anglia research.
A study published in Nature Communications finds that schemes designed to protect tropical forests from clearance based on the carbon they store do not pay enough to compete financially with potential profits from rubber plantations.
Without increased financial compensation for forest carbon credits, cutting forests down will remain more attractive than protecting them.
Carbon credits are currently priced at five to 13 dollars per ton of CO2 on carbon markets, but this doesn't match the cost of safeguarding tropical forests from conversion to rubber in Southeast Asia — between $30-$51 per ton of CO2.
The research was led by the University of East Anglia, in collaboration with scientists from the universities of Copenhagen, Exeter, Oxford and Sheffield, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Lead researcher Eleanor Warren-Thomas, from UEA's School of Environmental Sciences, now working at the University of York, said: "Forests are being converted into rubber plantations in Southeast Asia — especially in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
"Rubber production covers a massive area — 8.6 million hectares — which equates to around two thirds of the land used for oil palm plantations.
"Some of this area is traditional rubber agroforestry, but recent expansion has been of intensive monocultures. Demand for natural rubber, driven by the tire industry, has driven this expansion. The consequences for biodiversity and climate change are very similar to that of oil palm. But rubber has not faced the same level of public scrutiny.
"It's a big problem because these forests are irreplaceable. They are globally unique ecosystems, supporting many threatened animals, birds and plants, as well as exceptionally valuable luxury timbers such as rosewood.
"They also help mitigate global climate change by absorbing and storing CO2. Because of this, they are worth a lot to climate change mitigation efforts."
Forests that are kept intact absorb and store carbon — this process can be translated into 'carbon credits' which can be offered to individuals, organizations, or even countries, to offset their own carbon emissions, or in wider efforts to combat global climate change.
The service forests provide by absorbing and storing carbon is so important that financial incentives to reduce deforestation and forest degradation (termed 'REDD+') were included in the Paris Agreement at the COP21 international climate negotiations in 2015.
The research team focused on Cambodian forests, where trees grow as high as 55 meters, and investigated whether carbon credits are enough to safeguard the forests by working out the amount of carbon held by the trees, and the amount of profit which could be made by logging and conversion to rubber.