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Buying Environmental Protection from the Global Poor

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One strategy environmentalists sometime use in saving species is buying off the global poor, paying them to protect the environment rather than harvest it.

Now, a team of researchers has shown that there is a surprisingly cheap and easy way to slow the pace of deforestation in Uganda: Just pay landowners small sums not to cut down their trees. Their study, published in the journal Science on Thursday, demonstrated this by conducting something all too rare in environmental policy — a controlled experiment.

The idea of paying people in poorer countries to protect their forests has long attracted interest from those concerned about climate change. The United Nations set up a program, known as REDD Plus (for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), to channel $10 billion from wealthy donors like Norway and Japan to poorer nations to slow deforestation trends responsible for about 10 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions each year.

The idea sounds simple: When trees are cut down and decompose or are burned, they release the carbon dioxide they soaked up from the atmosphere. Keeping them intact can help slow the pace of global warming.

The experiment itself compared deforestation rates in control groups, one getting paid, one not. And it showed that the payments help, if they don’t solve all problems. This is fine if western countries want to invest in it. The best case scenario here is that the people of Uganda rise to enough economic prosperity that they don’t need or want to destroy their own forests. The realistic scenario is that these programs last precisely as long as someone is willing to pay because these people will not become rich and even if they don’t, global corporations will seek to harvest these forests if they find enough of value in them.

Sad to say that we are in the middle of the Sixth Extinction and anything to forestall is well worth trying, but programs around rich countries paying poor countries are extremely tenuous and limited, even if you had good actors in those rich countries instead of, say, the Republican Party or the Tories. Sure, environmental organizations can raise money for these payments too, but that makes it even more tenuous and if you believe rich people are going to solve the world’s problems, well….

Nonetheless, there is no down side for at least trying.

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