Cash For Carbon: Paying Ugandans To Preserve Trees Deters Climate Change

If you have moved around Ugandan villages, you would have noticed huge chunks of forested land. These forests are paid forby a new method of fighting climate change called Paying for Ecosystem (PES).

Paying for Ecosystem paid a total of US$20,000 to 180 people in 60 Ugandan villages not to cut down trees on their land was worth the money, researchers say. By delaying carbon dioxide emissions, the project’s benefits to society were more than double its costs.

Deforestation dropped by more than half in Ugandan villages where land owners were paid 70,000 Uganda Shillings(about $28) per hectare each year if they preserved their trees, according to the study from U.S. researchers published in the journal Science on July 20, 2017.

The benefits of paying land owners to preserve forests were more than two times greater than the cost of the program when it comes to protecting forests and tackling climate change which is exacerbated by deforestation, said the two-year study.

Trees are important because they absorb lots of carbon dioxide, which is a by-product of fossil fuel burning and is the primary of driver of global warming.

Ethiopia is also among the sub-Saharan African countries taking the threat of climate change seriously and is proving to be very ambitious in its plans to tackle its causes and effects: it is one of the few countries that was rated to have a ‘sufficient INDC’ and it has developed a Climate Resilient Green Economy Strategy or CRGE to stabilize the country's economic vulnerability to climate change. With Ethiopia being proclaimed the fastest growing economy worldwide for 2017, taking into consideration adaptation and mitigation approaches will prove necessary for the sustainability of its economy.

Much like Uganda, Ethiopia has planned to build a strong green economy in the next 20 years, with an estimated cost of $150 billion. A yearly amount of, $7.5 billion in funds will be needed to implement this.

Back in Uganda, Economists who crunched the numbers on forest preservation say the model pioneered in Uganda could be expanded to other countries with large tropical forests including Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru, as part of the fight against global warming.

The analysis of “Payments for Ecosystems” showed its benefits to the environment were 2.4 times as large as the program costs, said the study in the journal Science. “The payments changed people’s behavior and prompted them to conserve,” said lead author Seema Jayachandran, associate professor of economics in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University.

“And we didn’t find any evidence that they simply shifted their tree-cutting elsewhere.”

The two-year pilot in western Uganda examined the impact of offering landowners 70,000 Ugandan shillings ($28 in 2012 U.S. dollars) per year for each hectare (2.5 acres) of forest in which they left trees unperturbed. 

'Cost effective' program 

"When you think of the damage done by climate change, paying people to conserve forests is cost effective," said Northwestern University economist Seema Jayachandran, the study's lead author.

"It is a straight forward idea and the benefits are bigger than the costs," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Researchers hope some of the billions of dollars pledged by rich countries to help poor nations respond to climate change under a United Nations agreement signed in Paris in 2015 could be used to replicate the forest protection program.

Jayachandran said researchers were able to monitor whether beneficiaries in the 121 Ugandan villages were actually preserving the forests by a combination of site visits and satellite imagery.

Most deforestation in Uganda is caused by people cutting down trees for timber or charcoal or wanting to turn forested land into farms, she said. The program included residents who formally owned their land and those who had ancestral or informal control over their properties, Jayachandran said. 

Following the Programme by Its Roots

Sixty villages were randomly selected by Innovations for Poverty action to receive incentives, and 61 were not offered any cash to save the trees. Satellite data was analysed to measure tree cover, and forest monitors conducted spot checks on enrollees’ land to hunt for any sign of recent tree-clearing.

“In the villages without the program, 9% of the tree cover that was in place at the start of the study was gone by the end of it, two years later,” said Ms. Jayachandran.

“In the villages with the PES program, there was four to five percent tree loss. In other words, there was still deforestation, but much less of it.”

Forests in Uganda provide precious habitat for endangered chimpanzees.

Between 2005 and 2010 Uganda had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, with 2.7% lost per year, according to background information in the article.

A full 70% of forests in Uganda are located on private land, where poor farmers cut them for timber and charcoal burning. Cleared land is also used to grow crops. After the study, villages offered the incentive preserved 13.5 more acres (5.5 more hectares) of forest than villages in the comparison group.

“This equates to 3,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide not released into the atmosphere, at a total cost of just 46 cents per ton not released over the two years of the study,” said the report.

Because the amounts of money involved are fairly small, and because most deforestation today occurs in low-income countries, researchers said the savings can be big. For instance, paying Ugandans to conserve and plant trees was an estimated 10 to 50 times more effective per dollar spent than many energy efficiency programs in the United States, the study also found.

Though this is the first experimental study of its kind, its success show not just how effective, but how cost-effective, programmes like this can be. It may also be a very cost-effective way to help meet goals such as the Paris Accord targets. 

By Boaz Opio

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