In short, it appears that changes in deforestation over the last few years are likely to have been driven by short-run economic factors. And that may mean that when the global economic crisis ends, clearing rates will rise again -- unless we find a better way to protect forests now.
But the importance of economic factors to clearing rates also suggests an obvious and effective response: pay people to keep forests intact. Thankfully, there is an ongoing international effort to create such a program. Negotiators in the last U.N. climate change conference in Durban hashed out a number of issues related to paying countries to preserve their forests under a scheme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation -- also known as REDD. But they are still a long way from a final agreement. It has been immensely difficult to agree on who would get the money, and against what benchmarks and targets. And at a time of limited appetite for new expenditure by governments in developed nations, it isn't yet exactly clear who will pay the billions of dollars that donor countries as a group agreed to provide for REDD at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.
In the interim, the Norwegian government has started running REDD pilot programs -- but these exercises have shown how complex it can be to link payments with results on the ground, especially when so many local factors are involved in slowing the rate of clearing. In May 2011, Norway agreed to pay Indonesia $1 billion if, among other things, it put in place a two-year moratorium on new concessions to cut down forests. The decree excluded existing concessions and those "approved in principal," so perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that FORMA data suggested that June 2011 actually saw rates of clearing in Indonesia rising. The good news is that July and August of last year did see rates at their lowest levels since 2006, so perhaps there is a hope that however full of holes the agreement appears to be, it may still have some effect. But a previous Norwegian deal with Guyana appears to have done little to slow deforestation in the short term; and a $1 billion fund supported by Norway in 2008 to back Brazilian forest protection had only spent $39 million by the start of 2012.
Wheeler's analysis does suggest one potentially more straightforward approach. Pay countries each month if they manage to keep deforestation at a rate below that which would be expected given long-term development trends. Wheeler and colleagues suggest that as countries get richer they also clear less forest -- and that by the time a country's per capita gross domestic product hits around $10,000, it is likely to see a zero rate of net deforestation. So, if a developing country manages to slow its rate of clearing, and deforest less than its average income would suggest in a given month or year, it gets paid. FORMA provides sufficient, and sufficiently accurate, data to make such a scheme workable -- and Wheeler suggests a number of tweaks to make sure that the scheme encourages the long-term outcomes that we want.
Of course, given that the analysis of FORMA data suggests that protected area status and the quality of local government makes little difference to the rate of deforestation in Indonesia, one might wonder what good a scheme that gave money to apparently impotent governments would do. One answer is that the program would give countries a significant incentive to overcome that impotence -- searching for whatever amounts to the institutional equivalent of Viagra for their forestry departments. In fact, more capable government would be a considerable side benefit of the scheme. Less pulp and more efficient paper-pushers -- what's not to like?