Using ecosystem integrity to maximise climate mitigation and minimise risk in international forest policy

Rules and guidelines that treat forests equally in key international policy frameworks regardless of their risk profiles limit their effectiveness and can facilitate forest degradation. Here we assess the potential for using a framework of ecosystem integrity to guide policy goals.

Key international policy frameworks, such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, have a focus on forests,. However, rules and guidelines that treat all forests equally, regardless of their carbon loss risk profiles, limit their effectiveness and can facilitate forest degradation.

In this study we assessed the potential for using a framework of ecosystem integrity to guide policy goals. We reviewed the theory and present a conceptual framework, compare elements of integrity between primary and human-modified forests, and discuss the policy and management implications.

This study has also been summarised and presented in a policy paper.

Ecosystem integrity framework

Conceptual framework for ecosystem integrity.

We found that primary forests consistently have higher levels of ecosystem integrity and lower carbon loss risk profiles than human-modified forests. This underscores the need to take action to develop consistent large-scale data products to identify high-integrity forests, and operationalise a framework of ecosystem integrity, and to take action to protect primary forests. Doing so will optimise long-term stable carbon storage and the provision of other ecosystem services.

Examples of forest structure

Examples of forest structure, complexity, and ecosystem integrity between primary (left), selectively logged (centre), and plantation tropical forest (right). Photo credits: Brendan Rogers (left), Zuzana Burivalova (centre), and Shutterstock (right).

The scientific and management communities need better tools to accurately forecast the risks associated with different forest ecosystems, particularly those being managed for natural climate solutions and mitigation. Given these tools may be years or even decades away, we suggest focusing on ecosystem integrity now is an optimal solution for categorizing forest-based risks and protecting ecosystem services.

Doing so would:

  1. optimize investment in land carbon stocks and mitigation potential;
  2. identify stocks that provide the best insurance against risk of loss; and
  3. ensure the highest levels of benefits from ecosystem services, thereby optimizing compatibility and synergy between mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development goals.

A number of large-scale data products exist to guide this focus, which would benefit from incorporating time series dynamics from remote sensing and closer integration with regional data sources and field observations.

As primary forests have a higher level of ecosystem integrity than forests managed for commodity production, plantations, or degraded forests, we stress the continuing and increased need for their protection. Some recent policies and guiding documents are favorable in this regard.

Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done at national and international levels, with the evolving Paris Rulebook and country NDC’s arguably representing the largest opportunity.

Article authors

Brendan Rogers

Brendan Rogers

Dr. Rogers investigates how boreal forests are responding to climate change and land use, how this feeds back to climate change, and how management and policy can be used for mitigation and adaptation.
Tatiana Shestakova

Tatiana Shestakova

Tatiana is a post-doctoral researcher at Woodwell Climate Research Center research. Her interests span the fields of terrestrial ecology, stable isotope biogeochemistry, ecosystem modelling and climate change impacts on natural ecosystems.
Dr Brendan Mackey

Brendan Mackey

Project Director and Director of the Griffith Climate Action Beacon at Griffith University, contributing to community planning and engagement in forest projects.
Heather Keith

Heather Keith

Heather is a Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University. Her research is aimed at understanding the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems, particularly forests, to improve their management for conservation and climate change mitigation.
Virginia Young

Virginia Young

Virginia is a Director of the International Forests and Climate Programme for the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society (ARCS) working in the international policy arena on primary forests as part of a global collaborative research programme funded through Griffith University. 
Cyril Kormos

Cyril Kormos

Cyril is Founder and Executive Director of Wild Heritage, a project of Earth Island Institute. He also serves as IUCN-WCPA Vice-Chair for World Heritage, is a member of IUCN’s World Heritage Panel and chairs the IUCN-WCPA World Heritage Network.
Dominick Dellasala

Dominick DellaSalla

Dominick is Chief Scientist at Wild Heritage, and former President of the Society for Conservation Biology, North America Section and internationally renowned author of over 200 science papers on forest and fire ecology, conservation biology, endangered species management, and landscape ecology. .
Dr Glenn Bush

Glenn Bush

Dr. Glenn Bush is an environmental economist driven by a desire to find equitable resolutions to the long-standing conflict between human development and environmental conservation.

Additional authors

Richard Birdsey, Richard Houghton, and William Moomaw


Rogers, B. M., Mackey, B., Shestakova, T., Keith, H., Young, V., Kormos, C., DellaSala, D. A., Birdsey, R., Bush, G., Houghton, R. A., & Moomaw, W. R.. Using ecosystem integrity to maximize carbon mitigation and minimize risk in international forest policy. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. DOI: