July 26, 2017, by Tim Radford
Better news for some endangered species in Africa: Saving forests need not cost a lot. Image: IPA
Forests are more valuable standing than cleared. US economists have found how to subsidise protecting African forests at the village level.
LONDON, 26 July, 2017 – Economists have just shown that, at least sometimes, money does grow on the trees of African forests. By paying villagers in Uganda quite small sums not to clear the forest on their land, they changed collective behaviour and more than halved the expected tree loss.
And they demonstrated that the rewards of preserving forest were in cash terms more than 2.4 times greater than the monetary cost of saving the woodland, according to a new study in the journal Science.
The study – a large-scale, randomised controlled experiment in human behaviour – addressed one of the great problems of conservation. It is this.
Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated the value of rainforests, cloud forests, dry forests and boreal forests to the sum of humanity – they absorb carbon dioxide, release oxygen, conserve water, provide a habitat for millions of still unidentified species, and deliver leaves, fruits, flowers, fibres and timber of potentially incalculable value to growers, pharmacists and foragers.
But very little of this value finds its way to the people who have to make a living in or at the edge of the forests and who rely on the trees for fuel, building materials and a source of income.
Uganda’s forests have been dwindling by 2.7% per year, the third fastest rate in the world, and 70% of the tree cover is privately owned.
Scientists in the US and Belgium used satellite data to identify 121 villages in forest districts and then made a census of 1,099 private forest owners in these villages. Then they divided the villages into two groups of 60 and 61 settlements with 564 and 535 private forest owners respectively.
In their two-year experiment, they promised 70,000 Ugandan shillings – about $28 in 2012 – for each hectare of forest in which the trees were left undisturbed.
At the end of two years, the average tree loss in the paid-to-protect group was 4%. In the control group, where landowners got no money at all, the loss of canopy was more than double that at 9%. The scientists found no evidence that those paid to protect their own trees increased their logging or clearing activities in nearby land.
And then they set off the cost of the experiment against the notional overall rewards to the planet in not felling the forests, in terms of delayed carbon emissions – an estimated 3,000 metric tons of CO2 – and found they had backed a winner: the payback for humanity was 2.4 times the actual cash cost of protection.
Forests are a vital part of the global effort to mitigate global warming as a consequence of the combustion of fossil fuels, and the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A UN programme called REDD – it stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation – in effect rewards nations that try to conserve tree cover.
Forests absorb carbon dioxide and lower local and even regional temperatures, they protect and provide food for wild creatures, and international teams of scientists have gone to great lengths to identify both the sheer number of the world’s trees and the astonishing variety delivered by a hundred million years of evolution.
“Economists tend to be a cynical bunch. Many of our colleagues were sure that the landowners would find loopholes in the contract or just move their deforestation to other nearby land. But they didn’t”
But the same research has also confirmed that wild forest is being lost at an accelerating rate.
So the experiment in Uganda suggests a way of enlisting the people of the forests in a global effort, and sharing the benefits a bit more fairly.
“A major contribution of the study was to compare the benefit of reduced deforestation to the cost of the program. What’s that extra forest worth to society? We do that by applying what’s called the ‘social cost of carbon,’” said Seema Jayachandran, an economist at Northwestern University in the US, who led the research.
“This is an estimate that others have come up with for the economic damage to the world from each ton of CO2 that is emitted. We found that the benefit of the delayed CO2 emissions was over twice as large as the programme costs. For many other environmental policies, the value of the averted CO2 is in fact smaller than the programme costs.”
In fact, she and her colleagues found, the dollars spent in Uganda were between 10 and 50 times more effective than those invested in many energy efficiency programmes in the US.
“Small investments can go much further in poor countries. So we wanted to test if simply paying farmers not to cut down trees could be a win for them and a very cheap way to help manage greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr Jayachandran said.
And her research colleague Joost de Laat, also of Northwestern University, said: “Economists tend to be a cynical bunch.
“Many of our colleagues were sure that the landowners would find loopholes in the contract or just move their deforestation to other nearby land. But they didn’t.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.