- The research pulled together economic data from 130 countries and every border on earth.
- For the first time, economic data proves that, in poorer countries, per capita income gains often come at the cost of forest cover.
- The researchers also expected that reforestation would occur in richer countries as income levels rose, but their research did not bear that out.
Economists have for the first time shown a definitive link between rising incomes and a corresponding uptick in deforestation using satellite mapping data.
For a long time, economists have assumed that this more-or-less predictable pattern exists in developing economies, but it’s been difficult to prove.
“Until now, nobody had found a way of testing it empirically in a convincing way,” said Jesús Crespo Cuaresma, an economist at the International Institute for Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the Vienna University of Economics and Business. He is also the lead author of the study reporting the findings, published on Jan. 16 in the journal Scientific Reports.
Part of the reason is that information about forest cover, especially in the poorest economies where this effect is most pronounced, hasn’t been reliable, Crespo Cuaresma told Mongabay. Much of the economic research on this type of trend used estimates and simulations of forest cover, such as those from the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Those gaps in the data led to conflicting conclusions at times on the parts of researchers investigating this relationship.
“Satellite-sensed data provides exactly what would be required to overcome all those data problems that were present until now in the literature,” Crespo Cuaresma said.
For this study, he and his colleagues pulled together the numbers for the economies of 130 countries and then looked specifically at the trends in forest cover along borders using satellite data from 2005.
Examining the areas around human-drawn lines on maps is a technique that social scientists sometimes use to understand why conditions – often the result of disparities in politics or institutions – differ between two neighboring countries, the authors write. Important variables at national borders, such as rainfall and temperature should be fairly similar.
In effect, they tested their hypothesis with this “natural experiment” in which the differences in forest cover could be ascribed to the economic disparity between the countries found on either side of the border.
They found that in the poorest countries, this effect was clear. In particular, as per capita incomes rose, so did the level of deforestation.
For example, agricultural expansion in western Brazil has led to significant deforestation in the region, while forest on the other side of its border in Bolivia – one of South America’s poorest countries – has remained relatively unscathed.
They also expected a reversal of this trend in comparing middle-income or emerging economies with wealthier countries, but it wasn’t clear whether that part of their hypothesis held.
“Eventually, as countries get rich enough and there is enough demand for environmental quality, you would expect reforestation to take place,” Crespo Cuaresma said. “That is the part where we have not found strong evidence.”
What is clear, he said, was the importance that sub-Saharan Africa will likely have in the future as we search for ways to stem climate change.
“The future of sub-Saharan Africa seems to be particularly central to what’s going to happen with climate change challenges in the future,” he added.
Home to some of the poorest countries in the world, those economies are still expected to grow. As Crespo Cuaresma and his colleagues have shown, that will likely mean a decline in forest cover.
“This is particularly worrying because Africa is home to some of the world’s largest tracts of remaining undisturbed forests,” said Ian McCallum in a statement. McCallum is a remote sensing scientist at IIASA and coauthor of the study.
“Factors that keep deforestation in check in other tropical regions of the world, like good governance, monitoring systems, and peace, are lacking in much of tropical Africa,” he said.
- Crespo Cuaresma, J., Danylo, O., Fritz, S., McCallum, I., Obersteiner, M., See, L., … Abrams, M. J. (2017). Economic Development and Forest Cover: Evidence from Satellite Data. Scientific Reports, 7(January), 40678. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep40678
- Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change.” Science 342 (15 November): 850–53. Data available on-line from:http://earthenginepartners.appspot.com/science-2013-global-forest. Accessed through Global Forest Watch on January 25, 2017. www.globalforestwatch.org
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