Fewer jobs, dwindling savings, piles of public debt -- there's not much reason to be thankful for the global recession. But one small silver lining is that it has slowed the rate at which we're turning the atmosphere into an over-amped electric blanket.
There are two things at work here: First, less growth slows the demand for energy. During a recession, people make less, drive less, and even turn off lights more to save a couple dollars on the utility bill. That's the big factor behind greenhouse gas emissions in the United States having fallen 6 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The second reason environmentalists can feel good about a recession is that lower demand for everything -- including wood and agricultural products -- reduces the incentive to chop down trees. That relationship presents a challenge to tree-lovers: how to keep the chainsaws silent as the economy recovers? But it also suggests a solution -- and financial incentives can play a big role.
Tropical forests are home to about half of all species on Earth. And all of those trees store up a lot of carbon -- which escapes into the atmosphere when they are burned down. That's why the rapid rate of forest clearing worldwide is a vital global issue. Indonesia, a major home to tropical forests, lost about one quarter of its forests to logging and slash-and-burn agriculture between 1990 and 2005 alone. And, historically, forest clearing has accounted for somewhere around 15 percent of the impact of greenhouse gasses on global climate change. So we should cheer recent news that the global rate of deforestation has slowed. At the same time, sustaining that decline is going to take some serious work.
A tool developed by my colleague David Wheeler at the Center for Global Development called FORMA (or Forest Monitoring for Action) allows close tracking and analysis of global deforestation trends. FORMA covers 27 countries that accounted for 94 percent of clearing in the first half of the last decade. Every month, the FORMA software examines NASA data all across the tropics, 1 square kilometer at a time, to look for fires and changes in vegetation color -- telltale signs of loggers at work. Wheeler's work suggests that, between December 2005 and August 2011, the rate of monthly tropical forest clearing dropped by 42 percent.
That change was largely thanks to a considerably slowed rate of clearing in Indonesia and Brazil, which between them account for over three quarters of tropical deforestation. At the same time, the data suggests that among the 27 countries covered by FORMA, clearing increased in 14 of them over the last six years. And even within Brazil the picture is mixed: slower deforestation in southern Amazonia, more rapid clearing to the north. Likewise in Indonesia, which has seen decreased clearing in the southern and central areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan, but more rapid deforestation elsewhere on the same islands. That suggests a complex story regarding what has caused the global decline in deforestation, and what it would take to sustain it.
Analysis of the FORMA data for Indonesia points to a range of factors that help to explain how much forest is cleared, and where and when. Rainfall makes it harder to burn trees, so wet seasons see slower clearing. The spread of cell phone coverage appears to have helped loggers work more efficiently -- put up a cell tower and a logger may soon follow. Macroeconomic factors also play a role: Lower interest rates and a more favorable exchange rate -- both of which increase returns to investing in palm oil (Indonesia is the world's largest producer) and logging -- increase the rate of clearance. Sadly, among the factors that appear to have no effect on rates of deforestation across Indonesia is the one that has been a focus of global efforts to slow clearing: putting land in protected-area status. Again, the strength of local government institutions plays a limited role.