Preserving forests and wildlife may be simpler and cheaper than previously thought. In a controlled experiment, researchers found ecosystems and forests could be saved simply by paying landowners to do nothing—no chopping, no clearing, and no selling off rights to farmers, loggers, hunters or other industries. The study, conducted in Uganda and called “Cash for Carbon,” was published in the journal Science.
Fifty million acres of trees disappeared from the planet in 2015 alone, the Global Forest Watch found. That’s the largest single-year loss since records were first kept in 2001. Deforestation is most commonly the result of infrastructure development and expanding agricultural lands such as palm oil plantations.
This is a particularly significant issue in western Uganda, where tropical forests are being eliminated particularly quickly, to the detriment of thousands of species—in particular, a disappearing population of endangered chimpanzees. There, trees are being removed to make way for charcoal and farms.
But the “payments for ecosystems” forest-finance program is showing promise in places like this as ways to protect habitat and forests.
Paying people to preserve the wildlife on their own property is hardly a new idea. In the United States, programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program offers financial and technical assistance to landowners willing to implement programs like tree planting and invasive species removal on their property.
The United Nations has REDD Plus, a program providing donated funds to countries with tropical-forest-rich nations as incentive for them to protect their own forests and create huge reductions in carbon emissions. The science behind all these programs is utterly simplistic: Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air, which is rereleased in equal parts into the atmosphere when a tree is cut down and decomposes or gets burned. Keep the trees upright and alive, and keep those emissions at bay.
REDD Plus was incorporated in the Paris Agreement, but there have been mixed perspectives as to whether this sort of program is viable—until now.
The new study, out last week, was enacted between 2011 and 2013. Researchers teamed up with the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Ugandan government to pay a group of villagers in the country the equivalent of $28 United States dollars per hectare of forest not cut down.
“Unless you set up a randomized trial, where you’re carefully comparing people who take part in the program with people who aren’t, it’s hard to know if you’re having any effect,” Seema Jayachandran, an economist at Northwestern University and the lead author of the study, told the New York Times.
Sixty villages in the Hoima and northern Kibaale districts of Uganda were selected at random. Eighty-eight percent of the people who enrolled completed it and received money—on average, $56 each year the study was underway. That income represents just 5 percent of a person’s annual income in that region.
Using satellite imagery, they then compared what happened in those villages to 60 “control” villages that were not offered payments. Before the experiment, western Uganda’s forests were being destroyed at a rate of 9.1 percent every year. Following it, satellite scans of the villages showed deforestation slowed to 4.2 percent. "From this study, we can't really say if we went to Rwanda and tried the same thing that we would see the same results, but it made me less [pessimistic] that people would game the system," head researcher Seema Jayachandran said.
The “Cash for Carbon” study proved to be many times more economically efficient than other projects like solar panel installation or even subsidies for electric vehicles.
Delaying carbon emissions by keeping trees in the ground is averaged to represent $1.11 per metric ton—twice the total cost of the program.
Jayachandran has received another grant to continue satellite imagery in the villages that participated in the study, in order to determine whether forests are continuing to be protected now that the study has ended. The researcher says even if they aren’t, the delay in emissions is still significant.
"If we keep these forests alive an extra couple of years and push back when temperatures rise because of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the benefit to society is great," she said.