The transparency, reliability and utility of tropical rainforest land-use and land-cover change models



Land-use and land-cover (LULC) change is one of the largest drivers of biodiversity loss and carbon emissions globally. We use the tropical rainforests of the Amazon, the Congo basin and South-East Asia as a case study to investigate spatial predictive models of LULC change. Current predictions differ in their modelling approaches, are highly variable and often poorly validated. We carried out a quantitative review of 48 modelling methodologies, considering model spatio-temporal scales, inputs, calibration and validation methods. In addition, we requested model outputs from each of the models reviewed and carried out a quantitative assessment of model performance for tropical LULC predictions in the Brazilian Amazon. We highlight existing shortfalls in the discipline and uncover three key points that need addressing to improve the transparency, reliability and utility of tropical LULC change models: (1) a lack of openness with regard to describing and making available the model inputs and model code; (2) the difficulties of conducting appropriate model validations; and (3) the difficulty that users of tropical LULC models face in obtaining the model predictions to help inform their own analyses and policy decisions. We further draw comparisons between tropical LULC change models in the tropics and the modelling approaches and paradigms in other disciplines, and suggest that recent changes in the climate change and species distribution modelling communities may provide a pathway that tropical LULC change modellers may emulate to further improve the discipline. Climate change models have exerted considerable influence over public perceptions of climate change and now impact policy decisions at all political levels. We suggest that tropical LULC change models have an equally high potential to influence public opinion and impact the development of land-use policies based on plausible future scenarios, but, to do that reliably may require further improvements in the discipline.