Abstract Deforestation and forest degradation in the tropics is a major source of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The tropics also harbour more than half the world's threatened species, raising the possibility that reducing GHG emissions by curtailing tropical deforestation could provide substantial co-benefits for biodiversity conservation. Here we explore the potential for such co-benefits in Indonesia, a leading source of GHG emissions from land cover and land use change, and among the most species-rich countries in the world. We show that focal ecosystems for interventions to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in Indonesia do not coincide with areas supporting the most species-rich communities or highest concentration of threatened species. We argue that inherent trade-offs among ecosystems in emission reduction potential, opportunity cost of foregone development and biodiversity values will require a regulatory framework to balance emission reduction interventions with biodiversity co-benefit targets. We discuss how such a regulatory framework might function, and caution that pursuing emission reduction strategies without such a framework may undermine, not enhance, long-term prospects for biodiversity conservation in the tropics.