Posts Tagged ‘deforestation’

paying to save trees

Friday, September 25th, 2009

This week’s Economist has a long article on “reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation” (REDD). If REDD is to work, co-operation from forest dwellers is essential. The best and perhaps only way to obtain full co-operation is to pay them. A number of experimental projects along these lines are underway. The Economist discusses one of them, located in the south-eastern corner of the Brazilian state of Amazonas.

Novo Aripuanã is the site of a novel response to [the threat of deforestation]: the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve, an area of 600,000 hectares (1.2m acres) bordered by two highways. This is a nature reserve with an unusual twist: local people will be paid to prevent the trees from being cut down. Each family in the area has been issued with a debit card. Regular inspections will ensure that the trees are still standing: as long as they are, families will have 50 reais ($28) a month credited to their accounts.

These funds come from the rich world, where governments and companies that cannot reduce their own emissions cheaply are prepared to pay others to reduce emissions on their behalf (as “carbon offsets”). Not cutting down trees in endangered areas prevents emissions that would otherwise have occurred, which gives untouched forest huge financial value—and provides people who live in the forest with an incentive to preserve it.

This idea is known as “avoided deforestation” or “reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation” (REDD). At the moment REDD is not so much a plan as a collection of proposals and some working schemes, like Juma. The fate of the forests in Brazil, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere around the world could hang on the success of this approach. But there will need to be substantial international commitments to reduce global emissions to create demand for the carbon offsets that REDD schemes can provide. This means a lot hangs on a deal being struck in December in Copenhagen, where countries will meet to negotiate a new climate treaty.

“Paying to save trees: Last gasp for the forest”, The Economist, 26 September 2009.

Preventing deforestation is important for the climate agenda because “carbon emissions from deforestation account for some 18% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, more than all the world’s trains, cars, lorries, aeroplanes and ships combined”. This informative essay is – for The Economist – exceptionally long, and worth reading in its entirety.

paper recycling can be bad for the planet

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The standard reflex on the left when confronted with an economic question is to change the topic. Consider, for example, the economic argument against paper recycling. People say that recycling is a way of “saving trees,” yet, in practice, it has exactly the opposite effect. Why are there so many cows in the world? Because people eat cows. Not only that, but the number of cows in the world is a precise function of the number that are eaten. If people decided to eat less beef, there would be fewer cows. Yet the same is true of trees. “Old growth” timber is not used for pulp and paper—the trees that go into making our paper are a cash crop, just like wheat and corn. So one way to increase the number of trees being planted is for us to consume more paper. Furthermore, if we dumped used paper down an old mineshaft, rather than recycling it, we would in effect be engaged in carbon sequestration: taking carbon out of the atmosphere and burying it in the ground. This is exactly what we need to be doing in order to combat global warming. So recycling paper would appear to be bad for the planet, on numerous levels. Aluminum recycling makes sense (as suggested by the fact that it is profitable). But why paper recycling?

It’s possible that there is a coherent response to this argument, but I’ve never seen one. Most environmentalists focus on how recycling reduces deforestation in the short term but ignore the long-term consequences of diminishing the incentive to reforest. More often people just change the topic, decrying how tree farming promotes monoculture, criticizing logging practices, or complaining about the wastefulness of consumer society. What is conspicuously lacking is a simple, cogent line of reasoning that defends the practice against the “economic” objection. Again, this isn’t to say there is no argument, just that I’ve never heard it. What I have heard is a whole host of increasingly ingenious ways of changing the subject.

Joseph Heath, Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism (HarperCollins, Toronto, 2009), p. 6.

Readers, do you have a coherent response to this argument? I don’t, so if one occurs to you, please post a comment.

Philosopher Joseph Heath (1967-) is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. He freely admits “I’m not an economist”, having “essentially no formal training in the subject. I did take the usual Economics 101 course as an undergraduate, but I only went to class a couple of times. The professor got on my nerves. …. Since then, I’ve just been reading on my own. I also have no mathematics beyond high school. I did learn calculus, but I can’t remember how to do it. I mention this not to undermine anyone’s confidence in the arguments that follow, but merely to show that the barriers to economic literacy re not as great as they sometimes made out to be.”

I don’t know whether it is because—or in spite of—Heath’s lack of formal training, but this is one of the best economics books I have read in years. I recommend it to everyone, but especially to those the left who might benefit from learning more about the capitalist system they profess to despise. Heath’s book is a joy to read and covers many topics. I have quibbles with parts of the text, but these are minor compared to those I have with the average economics book written by an untrained journalist. Heath has clearly made an effort to understand what economists are trying to say. I especially liked his devastating criticism of libertarian ideology, on pages 24-43.

A US edition is forthcoming next year (2010), but you don’t have to wait for it, as the hardcover Canadian edition is available now at