What’s Driving Deforestation? Surprise Findings—David Wheeler

Owen Barder

David Wheeler, our lead researcher on climate and development, decided recently to retire from CGD, though he will continue to be active in CGD’s intellectual life as our first Senior Fellow Emeritus. Since joining CGD in 2006, David has published more than 20 working papers and launched two path-breaking global databases, Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA), which provides data on the CO2 emissions of more than 50,000 powerplants worldwide, and Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA), which uses satellite data to provide rapid, high-resolution tracking of tropical deforestation.

We discuss some surprising findings from David’s newly released analysis (Forest Clearing in the Pantropics:  December 2005-August 2011) of the FORMA data. There is both good news and bad news. Total forest clearing has dropped during the global recession, but with enormous variation within countries and across regions, he says. For example, there have been large declines in the rate of forest clearing in Brazil, Bolivia, Indonesia, and Paraguay but large increases in Myanmar, Malaysia, Peru, and Venezuela.  A companion paper (Economic Dynamics and Forest Clearing) finds that economic factors such as market prices, exchange rates, and interest rates all influence forest clearing.  The availability of communications infrastructure such as mobile phones, zoning, rainfall and terrain slope also play a role.

David says that these findings can be useful in targeting and delivering incentives for forest conservation through programs such as the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and other efforts to avert deforestation by paying people to not cut trees or otherwise protect tropical forests.

“Our findings suggest that without looking at incentives and prices, it's going to be very difficult to plan our way to lower levels of deforestation,” David explains. “They also suggest that financial and monetary authorities must be at the table, because the decisions they make will have fundamental effects on the speed of deforestation.”

FORMA currently collects data from 27 countries which make up 94 percent of tropical forest clearing. The data can be used to rank countries on their conservation efforts and provide monetary incentives to governments for prioritizing forest conservation, something David has explored in yet another FORMA related paper, From REDD to Green: A Global Incentive System to Stop Tropical Forest Clearing.

One early application of this new data is the work of the World Resources Institute, which is beginning to use FORMA data in its Global Forest Watch in an initiative called Global Forest Watch, which helps countries and local authorities to find hot spots where rapid forest clearing is occurring and react quickly to halt illegal deforestation.

In closing, I ask David to reflect on his career as he prepares for what I expect will be a very active retirement.

“There is an interesting gap out there that my colleagues and I have taken advantage of again and again,” says David. “That gap is defined by the distance between those who do technical and scientific work and people who do policy work. In between those two groups lies a gap that is defined by the need to define the outputs of the science and tech people in ways that the policy people and the general public can use very quickly for decisions and for bringing influence to bear on the process.”

“FORMA represents one side of CGD that appeals directly to the public as a way for encouraging the world’s leaders to make better decisions. That’s been a very important part of life here, it personally excites me, and I’m very happy I’ve had the opportunity to do that,” says David.

“The other side of CGD is careful policy research which we use to try to influence the halls of power in rich countries to do better by the poor countries of the world. There are very few organizations of this size that have that kind of flexibility and that level of ambition on the world stage and I’ve been privileged to be part of it.”

If you have iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week. My thanks to Alexandra Gordon and Ness Smith-Savedoff for their production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and to Alexandra Gordon for assistance in drafting this blog post.