Strategy would focus on drivers of deforestation to reduce carbon emissions and improve human welfare.
A scheme to pay people in developing countries to curb carbon emissions from deforestation is plagued by 'leakage' — trees that aren't cut down in one forest are just cut down in another to provide people with the resources they would have foregone. But a study by an international team of scientists has come up with a way of dealing with leakage. Money set aside for conservation could be used to target the underlying drivers of deforestation – such as local people's need for food and fuel – so that fewer trees need to be cut down.
"To be smart about using money to store carbon, you should do it in a way that addresses the drivers inherently," says Brendan Fisher, an environmental economist at Princeton University in New Jersey and lead author on the study, which is published today in Nature Climate Change1.
Fisher's team performed an in-depth analysis of the area around the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania – a biodiversity 'hot spot' – to find out how the United Nations' enhanced Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme might have an impact there. REDD+ aims to provide developed countries with a cheap way to offset their carbon dioxide emissions – paying developing countries not to cut down their forests, and thereby keeping carbon in the trees. The programme is currently providing support to 13 countries, including Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania.
Fisher and his team found that, in Tanzania, carbon payments that simply compensated people for the money they would lose by not converting forest to farmland fell short of people's needs. Not only were the costs underestimated — most REDD+ analyses didn't account for the one-third of newly converted land value that comes from charcoal production — but local people would be plunged into further poverty because they would be unable to replace the resources the land would have provided.
"Just conserving a plot of land doesn't mean that the market from somewhere else is going to supply food to those people," says Fisher. "With food insecurity, low yields and growing populations in sub-Saharan Africa, conserving future farmland could pose a serious cost to people in terms of their welfare and livelihood."
So the researchers came up with a plan to reduce deforestation and meet the needs of local people by helping them to better use the resources they already had. 'Smart-REDD' would put money towards fertilizer, seed and agricultural training to increase crop yields of existing farmland and help to meet the increasing demand for food. In addition, free distribution of fuel-efficient stoves would decrease the need for charcoal.
A Smart-REDD plan, which would include the cost of monitoring forests, would be more expensive than just paying people not to use the land — US$6.50 compared with $3.90 per tonne of carbon dioxide saved. But it would simultaneously prevent leakage, increase food production and decrease emissions. And even if crop yields had to be doubled, the cost would still be just $12 per tonne, which is half the price of carbon set by the European Union's Emission Trading Scheme (about $24 per tonne).
"The cost is still very competitive," says Doug Boucher, director of climate research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC. "It remains one of the least expensive ways of reducing global warming."
There may be other strategies for meeting people's needs in Tanzania, says Fisher, and other countries will almost certainly have different drivers of deforestation that need to be met. But regardless of individual regional differences, the core idea remains the same, that REDD+ funds should target those drivers to achieve the programme's goals.
"It might be possible to increase safe carbon, increase food security and have a positive impact on biodiversity for a pretty low cost," Fisher says.
Fisher, B. et al. Nature Clim. Change doi:10.1038/NCLIMATE1119 (2011).
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Dickey Zakaib, G. Smart-REDD plan targets causes of deforestation. Nature (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2011.331