Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Meet Your Green Fund Fellowship Winners, Part One

By Christopher Neely

Solving environmental issues takes more than just looking at the problems from one angle.

A proper solution takes interdisciplinary collaboration, which is exactly the idea behind ConE’s Green Fellowship. After a student competition this fall, the $10k award was given to two University of Maryland graduate students of separate disciplines who, in a collaborative effort, came up with the best proposed research idea.

Meet Joe Maher and Xiaopeng Song, your Green Fellowship winners. Maher, an agricultural and resource economics student, and Song, a geographical sciences student, won over the Council with their project: Linking Remote Sensing and Economics: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Protected Areas in Reducing Tropical Deforestation. 

The two first met in a graduate level environmental economics class taught by the Council’s very own Maureen Cropper. “She knew me and Xiaopeng had become friends through the class and had mentioned the grant to me,” said Maher.

According to Maher, they had several ideas, some good, some not so good, until finally they reached their final verdict: monitoring the effectiveness of protected areas in reducing tropical deforestation in South America.

“I wasn’t aware these [protected areas] were so common,” said Maher. “When I mentioned the idea to Xiaopeng, he came back super-fast. He had spent the summer working on classifying deforestation over certain time periods and he had a sense that this idea is a big part of deforestation policy.”

According to their research proposal, “Deforestation accounts for 12-20 percent of global carbon dioxide emission to the atmosphere – the second largest source after fossil fuel combustion.” The proposal also mentions that in climate change discussions, reducing deforestation while enhancing forest carbon stocks has been deemed as a “cost-effective strategy for mitigating global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The research project focuses on remote sensing and satellite imagery over South American tropical rainforests where, according to their research, more than 40 percent of the world’s deforestation emissions are located.

“The project aligns well with the econometric methods I’ve worked with, and it aligns very well with the classification work Xiaopeng had done,” said Maher. “It funneled down to a pretty clear, interesting idea.”

Song was able to gather annual deforestation data over a ten year period. The data also shows where the protected areas are and when they were established. By using colors to decipher what year each chunk of deforestation occurred, they are able to see, by knowing when each protected area was established, if deforestation in a protected area occurred.

In the picture, it is seen that each year’s deforestation from 2001-2010 is given a different color. The large gray area with “2008” written inside is a protected area (PA) that was established in 2008. The red coloring inside the PA is deforestation, but red indicates the deforestation occurred in 2004, before the PA was established.

If there were any light green marks in the protected area, that would indicate that it happened in 2010, which means that the anti-deforestation policy for that area is not working very well. It then becomes a policy issue, which is where Maher’s econometric analysis skills come into play, figuring out why certain policies aren’t working and learning from their failures in hopes to improve anti-deforestation policy elsewhere.

The key question in all of this is: How much deforestation would have occurred without protection? By seeing how much deforestation occurred in a protected area before it was established and then measuring that against how much occurred after, is where the true strength of the PA is visible.

“We were really happy about this idea, mainly because we wouldn’t have spent this much time on the project if it wasn’t for the grant to give us that extra incentive,” said Maher.

The pair claimed it would have been harder to this at a different university. According to both Maher and Song, the University of Maryland’s large research databases and resources helped them exponentially in making this research project possible.

The duo said they would use the grant money for traveling to environmental economic conferences, publishing, and any expenses that come with disseminating the research. The Council will now wait a year for the research to develop and a final report from Maher and Song on what they were able to accomplish in their research.