With the richest ecosystems in the world being destroyed at a horrifying rate, despair is easy. However, an assessment of a disarmingly simple solution suggests it works fairly well and at a worthwhile price.
The felling of tropical rainforests, whether for timber or to clear space for crops or grazing, releases billion of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. It’s the second largest source of global emissions, outweighing the entire transportation sector. It is also possibly the most powerful driver of extinction, since these forests hold up to 75 percent of all living species on Earth.
Some organizations are buying up tracts of forest and employing locals to protect them, but Payments for Ecosystems (PES) take an even more direct approach, paying villagers if the forest they own is intact at the end of a year.
Dr Seema Jayachandran of Northwestern University, Chicago, tested the program by offering PES to 564 farmers in 60 villages in Hoima and Kibale districts, Western Uganda, where nearby forests are privately owned. Uganda had the third highest rate of deforestation in the world between 2005 and 2010. Another 61 villages were used as a control. Overall forest cover around each village was assessed by satellite, and the results reported in Science.
“We found that the program had very large impacts on forest cover,” Jayachandran said in a statement. “In the villages without the program, 9 percent of the tree cover that was in place at the start of the study was gone by the end of it, two years later. In the PES villages, there was 4 to 5 percent tree loss. In other words, there was still deforestation, but much less of it.”
Moreover, Jayachandran added: “We didn’t find any evidence that they simply shifted their tree-cutting elsewhere.” Even at the targeted villages’ rate, nearby forest will be gone in 50 years, so the program is hardly a cure-all. However, a halving of the rate of deforestation at least provides room to explore other solutions.
The farmers were paid 70,000 Ugandan shillings per preserved hectare (28,000 shillings per acre). At current exchange rates that is about $20 US per hectare or $8 an acre, although the shilling’s value was a little higher at the time. Including additional costs for employing monitors and administration, Jayachandran calculated it cost just 46 US cents to delay the release of a metric tonne ($0.42 per ton) of carbon dioxide for a year.
Even conservative estimates of the benefit to the world of delaying carbon emissions calculate a figure of $1.11 per tonne per year ($1/ton/year). Not only is this more than twice Jayachandran’s costs, but it does not include the program’s other benefits, such as species preservation and poverty reduction, although costs will be higher in medium income nations.