Navigating the trade-offs of ecological, economic, and development goals to protect biodiversity


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This blog entry is part of a series that highlights insights from research for development policies and practices, supported by the Knowledge for Change Program (KCP).


Our understanding of biodiversity has evolved considerably over the past two decades. What was once a largely observational and descriptive field subsumed under the broad category of natural history, is now a highly interdisciplinary field that draws from economics, genetics, and the physical sciences, among others.

The UN Biodiversity Conference (fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)) culminated with the adoption of a historic Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) to conserve or protect nature. Among the four goals and 23 targets, the GBF outlines the mission to protect 30 percent of lands, coastal areas, and inland waters by 2030. How will we accomplish these ambitions?  Here, we highlight two studies from past Knowledge for Change Program (KCP)-supported research that demonstrate the importance of a data-driven and evidence-based approach to policy making around biodiversity. This foundational research still bears highly relevant lessons for us today and reinforces the crucial role that research plays in helping us learn from past polices to shape current thinking.


What are the impacts of biofuel production and expansion on biodiversity?

There has long been a debate around biofuels as a promising renewable energy source and climate-smart alternative to fossil fuels. However, biofuels can negatively impact the environment and biodiversity , due to, for example, land-use changes (such as deforestation) and the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Biofuels can also compete for resources that are necessary to feed a growing population with changing consumption patterns.

The KCP supported the development of first-of-its-kind research from 2008-2013 to better understand the environmental and economic impacts of biofuel expansion. The first study analyzed the long-term impacts of large-scale expansion of biofuels on land-use change, agricultural and food production and prices, and the overall economy. Using a global dynamic computable general equilibrium model, the project examined two scenarios: a base line scenario where biofuel use targets would stay consistent with already announced targets (“AT”), and an enhanced scenario with significant biofuel expansion, where there would be a doubling of announced targets (“ET”).

  • Land use impacts: the study showed that in the ET scenario, countries would ramp up land allocation for the crops serving as feedstock in biofuels, which would become a major blow to diversity, as resources are driven away from cultivating pasture, forest and non-feedstock crops. This is particularly notable in France, the United Kingdom, Thailand, South Africa, India, and Brazil. The ET scenario would lead to nearly 18.4 million hectares of forest loss as compared to the baseline in 2020, with the largest losses taking place in Brazil and Canada, where forests land is already decreasing at an alarming rate.
  • Food supply impacts: food supply at the global level would be impacted, with approximately two-thirds of the world food supply decrease imputable to developing countries. China, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and India would suffer the most even under the AT scenario. In India alone, food availability would be reduced by $1.4 billion.
  • Economic impacts: the research also found that expanding global biofuel production would reduce GDP at the global level, but that the GDP impacts are mixed across countries or regions. Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, and Indonesia would experience increases in GDP, whereas countries like the United States, China, and India would experience reductions in their GDP.

This research helped inform the European Union (EU)’s decision to ban imports of biofuels produced from palm oil, the primary driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. Many of the mandates and targets announced around the time of this research have not been met, or environmentally protective policies have been introduced. India’s ambitious 2009 National Biofuel Policy mandate ran into several issues, including those detailed in this research endeavor. Member states in the European Union are now required to follow the Indirect Land Use Change directive of 2015, and the Fuel Quality Directive of 2009, among others. Hopefully more governments would consider policies for the sustainable production of biofuels to a level that does not cause land clearing or food insecurity.


How do we navigate the trade-off between ecological and development objectives in infrastructure investment programs?

Tropical forests are home to the Earth’s greatest concentrations of biodiversity, but they may be significantly impacted in the face of critical infrastructure investments, such as upgrades in roads and transportation corridors . Using a high-resolution spatial model, the first study looked into the tradeoff between conservation and development objectives in the moist tropical forests of Bolivia, Cameroon, and Myanmar in 2016, and provided highly relevant policy advice on the impacts of road improvement programs on forest clearing and biodiversity.

Implications on forest clearing: The study demonstrated that forest clearing is most responsive to the distance to the nearest urban center/market, particularly with upgrading of secondary roads with lower speed limits . In Bolivia, four moist forest ecoregions are predicted to significantly change, with the greatest proportional change occurring in the Southern Andean Yungas where 10,390 hectares (80-100 percent of the area) will be cleared. The predicted impacts are substantially greater in Cameroon than in Bolivia (in both absolute and proportional terms), where the Cameroonian Highlands forests are most affected. In Myanmar, road upgrading has shown to have widely distributed impacts on that country’s moist forest ecoregions, with the greatest expansion of maximum cleared area occurring in the Northern Indochina subtropical forests.

Biodiversity encroachment and habitat losses: The research also developed a composite biodiversity indicator, which identifies areas of expected biodiversity loss from upgrading secondary roads to primary status. The result showed that the risk indicators are far from uniformly distributed. For example, Bolivia is dominated by large areas with high expected biodiversity losses in the southwest, west, and north, but with highly skewed spatial distribution. Whereas in Myanmar, the expected losses are more evenly distributed and large areas of biodiversity encroachment is more visible in the far north, a band from the north to the east, and scattered areas in the west and south. These ecological risk ratings for road corridors not only demonstrate that areas with high expected biodiversity losses would warrant additional protection, but also provide valuable, context-specific information  for environmentally sensitive investment programs.

Our ability to reverse the long trend toward biodiversity degradation depends on a continued commitment to broad-based, interdisciplinary research. The KCP will continue to support policy-relevant, foundational research to help shape our collective response to a continually worsening global crisis.


The authors would like to acknowledge contributions from the following projects under the guidance of the following task team leads (TTLs) and researchers.  Biofuels and Sustainable Development (TTL: Govinda Timilsina); Economics of Biofuels and Potential Impacts on Biodiversity (TTL: Govinda Timilsina); Ecologically Cost-Effective Road Investment in Tropical Forests (TTL: Susmita Dasgupta).

About the blog series: The Knowledge for Change Program (KCP) has launched a blog series to retrospectively highlight a selection of research projects conducted over the past 20 years, many of which still remain highly relevant and offer great lessons for development policies and practices today. Managed by the Development Economics Vice Presidency of the World Bank (DEC), the KCP promotes evidence-based policy making through research, data and analytics. To celebrate the KCP’s fourth phase launched in November 2020, this blog series will look into the wealth of knowledge researchers have generated in KCP’s previous phases, distill lessons learned, and inspire discussions on future research directions.


Kerina Wang

Senior Program Officer, Development Economics and Chief Economist

Lauren Nicole Core

Special Projects, Water Global Practice, The World Bank

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