An international consortium of researchers has challenged the view that forests are worth more dead than alive.
According to a new study, the researchers claim that the emerging market for carbon credits has the potential to radically alter that equation.
"What we discovered is that returns for deforestation are generally so paltry that if farmers and other land users were rewarded for the carbon stored in their trees and forests, it is highly likely that a large amount of deforestation and carbon emissions would be prevented," said Brent Swallow, the lead author of the study.
The study, which was released this week at UNFCC Conference of Parties (COP-13) in Bali, compared the financial gains generated by deforestation over the last 10 to 20 years in areas of Southeast Asia, Central Africa and the Amazon Basin to the amount of carbon that was released by the destruction.
The study was conducted by the World Agro-forestry Center (ICRAF), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), four of the15 centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and their national partners
The researchers—who conducted the study under the Partnership for Tropical Forest Margins (ASB)—found that in most areas studied, the various ventures that prompted deforestation rarely generated more than five dollars for every ton of carbon they released and frequently returned far less than one dollar.
Meanwhile, European buyers are currently paying 23 euros—about US 35 dollars—for an offset tied to a one-ton reduction in carbon.
"We understand that allowing people in forested regions of developing countries to participate in carbon markets presents major challenges, but it's naive to think that conservation is going to occur absent a market incentive," said Meine van Noordwijk, Southeast Asia Regional Coordinator of the World Agroforestry Centre (known by its acronym ICRAF).
Van Noordwijk and his colleagues arrived at their conclusions on the economics of deforestation after examining the trade-offs between carbon and financial returns in three areas in Indonesia, and one area each in Peru and Cameroon, all of which have undergone extensive deforestation.
They found that in most instances at the sites in Indonesia, deforestation returned less than five dollar per ton of carbon released and in some areas, less than one dollar.
The report notes that offering economic rewards for carbon storage could be effective not only at encouraging conservation, but also at encouraging activities in deforested areas that can recoup at least some of the lost carbon.
Researchers caution that despite the clear benefits to be derived from assigning carbon credits to conserving forests, implementing a forest-based carbon market will be complicated.