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Carbon pricing could save millions of hectares of tropical forest: new study

  • Recently published research in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that setting a price of $20 per metric ton (about $18/short ton) of carbon dioxide could diminish deforestation by nearly 16 percent and the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by nearly 25 percent.
  • The pair of economists calculated that, as things currently stand, the world stands to lose an India-size chunk of tropical forest by 2050.
  • In addition to carbon pricing, stricter policies to halt deforestation, such as those that helped Brazil cut its deforestation rate by 80 percent in the early 2000s, could save nearly 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles).

A new study finds that putting a price on carbon could drastically reduce the amount of deforestation in the tropics by 2050: $20 per metric ton (about $18/short ton) could diminish deforestation by nearly 16 percent and the associated burst of carbon released into the atmosphere by nearly 25 percent.

In research first released in 2015 that’s now been published in the January edition of the journal Environmental Research Letters, the authors project that we could lose an India-sized chunk of tropical forest in the next 32 years. Their work involved examining satellite maps of past deforestation from the University of Maryland in concert with economic analysis to figure out how “carbon pricing” could help shift these trends.

Deforestation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Critical to their calculations was a nuanced understanding not just of how much forest humans might cut down by 2050, but where and how fast it’s likely to occur. In their analysis, the team kept finding the same pattern of deforestation “over and over again,” said co-author and environmental economist Jonah Busch at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C.

“First come the tiny little cuts,” Busch said. “Maybe it’s a road, maybe it’s selective logging that just barely shows up.”

After those initial pulses, deforestation has a tendency to speed up considerably, until reaching a point when the dwindling amount of forest left begins to drag the rate back down.

Busch and fellow economist and co-author Jens Engelmann didn’t come up with this notion that deforestation happens most quickly in places with “intermediate levels of forest cover,” Busch said. But, he added, “to my knowledge, we are the first ones to find it in the data.”

And this pattern could help guide policy.

“You can’t write off the places where there’s very little deforestation,” he said.

Ideally, we would meet the first signs of deforestation in places with lots of forest with strategies right away to stop its spread, such as investments of REDD+, or reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. This mechanism involves payments from rich to developing countries to preserve their forests and the stockpiled carbon they contain and was part of the 2015 Paris climate accords.

“An ounce of prevention is a pound of cure,” Busch added.

Land cleared in Indonesia on the island of New Guinea. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Investments from wealthy countries have the potential to slash emissions at a “bargain” price, the researchers found. While it’s critical that European countries cut their own emissions, Busch said that paying tropical countries to maintain their standing forests could cut five times as much emissions for the same price.

The U.S. too could tap into this economical strategy to reduce emissions, Busch said, if the country’s leaders decide to rejoin the Paris agreement.

“There’s a big opportunity for the United States,” he added, “when it does come back to the table.”

Even without carbon pricing, tropical forest countries could keep sizable portions of their forest standing by enacting stricter policies. Busch and Engelmann looked at the impact of Brazil’s efforts to reduce deforestation from 2004 to 2012.

Brazil’s 5.19 million square kilometers (2 million square miles) of tree cover dwarfs the second-placed Democratic Republic of Congo’s 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles), based on 2000 estimates from Global Forest Watch. With so much tree cover, the 80 percent cut in Brazil’s deforestation rate in that time frame alone kept an extra 5.2 billion metric tons (5.7 billion tons) of carbon dioxide locked away in the forest and out of the atmosphere.

A logging road and deforestation in Gabon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

If all other tropical forest countries put similar policies in place, it could save nearly 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of forest and 58 billion metric tons (64 billion tons) of carbon dioxide through 2050.

Recently, however, Brazil’s deforestation rates have begun to creep up, though they dipped by 16 percent in 2017. If the country reverts to clearing at the rates recorded before 2004, Busch said, it would have a drastic effect on the bank of tropical forest on Earth. Then, according to his calculations, the area of forest loss would be 3.65 million square kilometers (1.41 million square miles) — more than half the size of Australia if the rest of the world continues with “business as usual.”

“What’s happening in Brazil has just a huge influence on the future of forest loss and climate,” Busch said.

Banner image of cattle pasture in Brazil where forest once stood by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Follow John Cannon on Twitter: @johnccannon

Correction (Feb. 6, 2018): A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the area of forest loss if Brazil’s deforestation rates returned to pre-2004 levels. The area of forest loss would be 3.65 million square kilometers (1.41 million square miles), not 3.86 million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles). We regret the error.


Busch, J., & Engelmann, J. (2017). Cost-effectiveness of reducing emissions from tropical deforestation, 2016–2050. Environmental Research Letters, 13(1), 015001.

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