Paying to Preserve Forest Carbon Depends on Human Motivation—And It Works
At the extreme, it’s been described as the “pay me or the jungle gets it” strategy. Even under the more genteel term of “payment for ecosystem services,” the practice is controversial. But it turns out, it works—both for the climate, and for the people that it compensates simply for maintaining existing forests.
That’s what researcher Seema Jayachandran, associate professor of economics at Northwestern University, found after comparing two groups of villages in Uganda, “where deforestation rates are the third-highest in the world,” Inside Climate News reports.
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“Land use change, mostly deforestation, was the second-largest source of man-made global carbon emissions, after fossil fuels, between 2006 and 2015,” ICN observes, citing Jayachandran’s study. Payments for ecosystem services are based on a straightforward incentive system and have been implemented in Australia, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Nonetheless they remain “controversial,” because “critics say it can foist the burden of cutting emissions onto developing countries.”
To test its effectiveness, Jayachandran investigated 121 small Ugandan villages. In 60 of them, landowners were paid US$28 per hectare per year not to cut trees. Landowners in the other 61 got nothing. In the villages where owners received an incentive to do something other than cut their trees, forests lost 4.2% of their coverage over two years, while forests where owners received no incentive lost 9.1%. On average, each village whose residents received revenue for forest ecoservices preserved 5.6 hectares of trees that would otherwise have been lost, and kept three megatonnes of carbon from being released into the atmosphere.
Payments like her experimental ones, Jayachandran said, represent “low hanging fruit,” if not to end carbon loss through deforestation, then to at least slow it dramatically. Far from downloading costs on poor nations, she contends, it works—because for subsistence villagers, “the opportunity costs for them to change their behaviour and not deforest are just very small relative to the cost of a person in California buying a new [fuel-efficient] vehicle.”
Slower deforestation is, of course, still forest loss; it doesn’t prevent exhaustion of the resource, but merely delays it. So “it’s not going to be enough,” Jayachandran conceded. “We have to do other things. But if this works, we should be doing it more.”