The Optimist

Forest Bump

The global economic crisis is good news for trees, but how can we make sure the gains keep coming?

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.

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?

Lunae Parracho/AFP/Getty Images

The Optimist

The Eradication Calculation

Does it really make sense to spend billions of dollars to wipe out the few remaining cases of polio?

On January 13, India became the latest country to celebrate a year completely polio-free. After more than a century as a global scourge and hundreds of thousands lives lost, polio may now be on the verge of being the second human disease wiped off the face of the Earth -- after smallpox, which was eradicated 36 years ago. But the global battle to defeat polio is expensive -- and we're by no means sure of victory. That does raise the question: is it worth it?

In 1952, more than 50,000 kids were paralyzed by a polio outbreak in the United States. Today, the disease is unknown in America -- and across much of the rest of the world. In 1981, there were more than 65,000 new cases reported worldwide to the World Health Organization. That number dropped to 1,348 in 2010 and 628 in 2011. That progress has saved as many as five million kids from paralysis worldwide and is thanks to a global effort involving millions of volunteers, health workers, and government officials, as well as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Rotary and Gates Foundations.

Despite this heartening success, getting all the way to eradication is proving immensely hard. In 2010, the majority of polio cases were in countries once free of the virus. In 2011, six countries that had been polio-free the previous year saw the disease come back -- although the good news is that incidents were few: only 66 cases between them. Unlike smallpox, most cases of polio don't show any immediate symptoms, which complicates the response to outbreaks. Moreover, vaccinating against the disease takes repeated doses (India's polio-free year involved two nationwide programs in 2011, each immunizing 172 million children over five days).

And, of course, global eradication depends crucially on parents being willing to vaccinate their kids in the countries still suffering outbreaks -- not least Pakistan and Nigeria. Both countries have faced opposition to vaccination programs on the grounds that they are a Western plot to sterilize local girls. Sadly, these wild conspiracy theories were given an additional patina of credibility last year by the revelation that the CIA used a vaccination program to cover its attempts to get DNA samples from Osama bin Laden's children in Abbottabad. Perhaps polio eradication will be another victim of the war on terror.

In part because of the considerably greater complexity of the vaccination program, the cost of the polio eradication program is mounting. Over the disease's last decade in the 1970s, the cost of the global smallpox eradication effort was roughly $330 million. Getting India to zero polio cases last year involved a program that has already cost $2 billion, and the worldwide price tag tops $1 billion each year.

Adding to the uncertainty and the cost, there's a small risk using the standard oral vaccination --which contains a weakened live version of the virus -- that the polio virus actually re-emerges at full strength after a time sitting in the guts of vaccinated kids. So, if we want to be fully sure of wiping out the disease using today's approaches, even many "polio-free" countries would have to continue vaccinating children for five or ten more years using an injectable inactivated polio vaccine -- which is more expensive and complex to administer than the oral vaccine.

Every year, then, we're putting down $1 billion more on a gamble that we can eradicate the disease -- a gamble we're by no means sure of winning. Meanwhile, the very success of the vaccination campaign to date means that polio just isn't a major public health threat any more. Consider that the global count of polio cases last year, at 628, equals the number of people who died of malaria in Papua New Guinea in 2008. Worldwide, the mosquito-borne disease kills nearly two thirds of a million people a year, yet the international program to roll back malaria sees funding of only about $1.6 billion a year. That's led some to suggest it's time to cut our losses with polio (or declare partial victory) and go on to other scourges. Richard Horton, who edits the British medical journal The Lancet, has suggested that the polio eradication drive is diverting dollars from other health priorities.

Horton has a point. Campaign supporters would have a hard time demonstrating that the quest for global polio eradication is the most cost-effective use of $1 billion a year -- compared to improved vaccination rates for more common diseases like measles, or promotion of breastfeeding, or increasing access to bed nets to reduce the burden of malaria.

But we do know two things: first off, even if it is not theoretically the most cost-effective approach, and even allowing for the risk of failure, the polio eradication program is likely to improve global health at a lower cost than many other health interventions in the developing world already receiving far more in the way of international resources. A study by Dr. Radboud Tebbens in the medical journal Vaccine suggested the polio eradication effort, if successful in the next five years, would save more than eight million children from being paralyzed between 1988 and 2035, along with reducing medical costs and increasing productivity enough to outweigh the cost of the eradication program by $40-$50 billion.  

Of course, if we manage global eradication, we will never again have to spend money on polio vaccination -- or on supporting or burying the disease's victims. Conversely, if the effort to stamp out polio was scaled back, the disease would inevitably spread back into areas currently polio-free. Even campaign skeptics accept the disease would expand again to kill or cripple more than 100,000 children a year.

A second reason to continue the push is that polio eradication would send a powerful message to the world at a time when a little more belief in the power of global cooperation would be a very useful thing. Despite the complexity of the eradication program, and despite all of the poverty and corruption in the countries where polio remains, the campaign has already suggested that when the global community works together it can achieve incredible things.

If a billion-plus dollars seems a lot to spend on symbolism, compare it to the cost of hosting that other symbol of global goodwill: the $14 billion 2012 London Olympic Games. So here's  hoping Pakistan and Nigeria can manage to follow India's lead in 2012, and that the world will be polio-free soon after.

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images