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Tropical agricultural landscapes in a changing climate: oil palm, rainforest biodiversity and ecosystem services

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  • Full or part time
    Prof Hill
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Tropical rainforest landscapes support exceptionally high levels of biodiversity and are important global carbon stores. However, rainforests are under threat from conversion to agriculture to meet the food demands of an increasing human population. Oil palm is the world’s primary source of vegetable oil and plantations are replacing rainforest in many tropical locations. Thus it is important to develop more sustainable agricultural landscapes that optimise yield, maintain ecosystem services and reduce biodiversity losses. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has developed sustainability standards but the scientific evidence base is lacking and any impacts of climate change on oil palm cultivation have not be considered; hence the need for this project.

The main aims of the project are: (1) assess the impacts of future climate change on oil palm yields, and examine how shifts in cultivation might affect rainforest; (2) determine if climate change impacts are similar across different tropical regions, and the consequences for above-ground carbon stores; (3) provide the scientific evidence base for the ecological benefits of sustainability certification.

The project will investigate the impacts of climate on tropical agricultural landscapes. The student will collate existing data on oil palm yields, rainforest cover and climate to model impacts of climate change. By using existing climate models, the student will determine current relationships between climate and yield, and where the locations of suitable areas for plantations may shift in future. The project will assess the ecological consequences of shifts in cultivation, and threats to carbon stores and Protected Area networks. The student will also collect new field data (e.g. yield, carbon stocks, biodiversity) from oil palm plantations (in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo) to test RSPO sustainability standards.

This is a multidisciplinary project combining new field work and analysis of existing data with computer modelling and integrating ecology, conservation, agriculture, and climate change. The role of climate on oil palm has not been considered previously; given the extent and potential of past and new palm oil plantations, this is an important topic to study. The study is funded by the University of York and Unilever, providing the student with opportunities to translate their findings into policy and gain experience from collaborating with industry partners.

This project will be co-supervised by Dr Colin McClean (Environment Department, University of York) and Henry King (Unilever).

Funding Notes

This is a University of York/Unilever fully funded studentship for 3.5 years and covers: (i) a tax-free stipend at the standard Research Council rate (£14,057 for 2015-2016, to be confirmed for 2016-2017 but typically increases annually in line with inflation), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees at the UK/EU rate.

The studentship is available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements.

How good is research at University of York in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 44.37

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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