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Exploring the unintended consequences of zero-deforestation oil palm

   School of Environmental Sciences

About the Project


Concerns about the loss of tropical rainforests have led companies to make zero-deforestation commitments (ZDCs) to reduce carbon emissions and biodiversity losses due to tropical commodities, such as palm oil. This means they will eliminate deforestation associated with commodities that they produce, trade and/or sell. However, ZDCs could have unintended consequences for biodiversity if they cause leakage or displacement of oil palm cultivation into other threatened biomes, such as savannas and dry tropical forests. In addition to potentially requiring greater land area, yields may be lower in these drier habitats, affecting smallholder farmer livelihoods. The unintended consequences of ZDCs for biodiversity or livelihoods could be severe, but have not yet been explored. 


Focusing on Central Africa, a region where oil palm is native, this project will carry out fieldwork to explore the consequences of cultivating oil palm in savannas. Collecting new field data from smallholdings and commercial plantations, the project will:

(1)         Quantify changes in biodiversity (ground flora and ants), ecosystem functioning and carbon stocks;

(2)         Determine yield-biodiversity trade-offs and how they differ from those in rainforest biomes;

(3)         Develop indicators of High Conservation Values for savannas that will facilitate the protection of important biodiversity elements in these open biomes.

Novelty and timeliness:

While sustainable oil palm and conservation of tropical forest biodiversity has received much attention, there may be unintended consequences of ZDCs for other biomes. ZDCs are shrinking the area available for oil palm cultivation in forest biomes, and so savannas and other biomes are increasingly under threat from oil palm expansion; this is already happening in parts of Central Africa with more development planned. Existing environmental assessment procedures (such as the High Carbon Stock Approach) for rainforests may not be appropriate for savannas. Understanding the environmental impacts of oil palm expansion is needed urgently with policies for sustainable development expanded to include other tropical biomes. 

The project will address the ‘Right tree, right place, right time’ Highlight topic.


Notes and how to apply are available here:

Informal enquiries may be made to Professor Kate Parr:

Funding Notes

NERC ACCE DTP in Ecology and Evolution, programme starts October 2022.
UKRI provide the following funding for 3.5 years:
• Stipend (2021/22 UKRI rate £15,609)
• Tuition Fees at UK fee rate (2021/22 rate £4,500)
• Research support and training grant (RTSG)
Note - UKRI funding only covers UK (Home) fees (£4,500 at 2021/22 rate). A limited number of international fee bursaries will be awarded on a competitive basis. However, if selected International and EU fee rate candidates may need to cover the remaining amount of tuition fees by securing additional funding. International fees for 2021/22 entry were £24,250 per annum.


Hamer, K., Sasu, M.A., Ofosuhene, L., Asare, R., Ossom, B., Parr, C.L., Scriven, S.A., Asante, W., Addico, R. & Hill, J.K. (early online) Proximity to forest mediates trade-offs between yields and biodiversity of birds in oil palm smallholdings. Biotropica.
Barlow, J……Parr, C.L. & Graham, N.A.J. (2018) The future of hyperdiverse tropical ecosystems. Nature 559: 517-526.
Lehmann, C.E.R. & Parr, C.L. (2016) Tropical grassy biomes: linking ecology, human use and conservation. Phil. Trans. Royal Society B. 371: 20160329.
Austin, K.G. et al. (2021) Mapping and Monitoring Zero-Deforestation Commitments. BioScience, biab082
Fleiss, S. et al. (2020) Conservation set-asides improve carbon storage and support associated plant diversity in certified sustainable oil palm plantations. Biological Conservation 248, 108631.

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