Cool Earth

0 min read
15 Apr 2016
Notice about research

Giving What We Can no longer conducts our own research into charities and cause areas. Instead, we're relying on the work of organisations including J-PAL, GiveWell, and the Open Philanthropy Project, which are in a better position to provide more comprehensive research coverage.

These research reports represent our thinking as of late 2016, and much of the information will be relevant for making decisions about how to donate as effectively as possible. However we are not updating them and the information may therefore be out of date.

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If you are interested in reducing climate change please find our latest report on climate change.

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We have kept this report live as part of our historical record.

Two relevant critiques of Cool Earth have since been published by Founders Founders Pedge and on the EA Forum.

What is the problem?

Emissions of CO2 contribute to anthropogenic climate change which, in turn, has extensive negative impacts on human health and wellbeing. The World Health Organisation estimates that, by 2030, an additional 250,000 people will die each year due to the effects of climate change and people living in extreme poverty will be disproportionately affected.1 Our modelling indicates that current emissions will increase human mortality by approximately 1 death per 258,200t of CO2-equivalent emitted (likely a low estimate). This does not, however, include the detrimental effects on biodiversity and the natural environment which are also likely to be considerable (see our full cause report for more information).

What do they do?

Cool Earth was founded in 2007 in the United Kingdom by businessman Johan Eliasch and MP Frank Field, who were concerned with protecting the rainforest and the impact that deforestation might have on the environment.

Cool Earth aims to reduce the impacts of climate change by combating deforestation in a variety of rainforest locations - including the Ashaninka and Awajun Projects in Peru, the Lubutu project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Orangerie Bay Project in Papua New Guinea, the Awacachi Project in Ecuador (completed), and the Madeira Project in Brazil (completed).2 Cool Earth does not buy rainforest directly, but rather establishes sustainable agreements with local communities to ensure that local communities opt not to sell the nearby forest to loggers.3 These agreements aim to improve the lives of these communities to the point where they can withstand pressure to sell to loggers, and are based on the needs and specific requests of the community. They have previously involved support for local industries such as cacao and coffee, technical assistance, funding for local schools, provision of boats for emergency health evacuations, and targeted maternal healthcare. Based on this, Cool Earth’s work also contributes to economic empowerment at a community level.

As of January in 2015, according to Cool Earth’s ongoing monitoring efforts, their agreements covered 641,000 acres4 of rainforest which may otherwise have been logged (a more recent estimate of 643,545 acres is listed on their website).5 Cool Earth also aims to indirectly shield even greater areas of forest by blocking off access to loggers through the positioning of directly protected areas. As of January in 2015, based on ongoing monitoring, an estimated 1,633,253 acres had been shielded in this way (excluding forest which would be impractical to log for geographic reasons).6 With 1.77 billion acres of forest located in the countries where Cool Earth has been active, this equates to 0.12% of the total forest area either shielded or directly protected by Cool Earth.789 Note, however, that these figures are self-reported.

Deforestation is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions and, thereby, to climate change.10 Reducing deforestation and managing forests sustainably have been recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as among the “...most cost-effective mitigation options…” for reducing emissions11 - such that the Norwegian government has adopted it as a key strategy in reducing emissions, pledging $1 billion to preventing deforestation in Brazil.12 This level of cost-effectiveness is due to the large amounts of carbon dioxide which are trapped in forest biomass which are released when logging occurs - approximately 272 tonnes per acre.131415

Overall evaluation

Cool Earth is the most cost-effective charity we have identified to date which works on mitigating climate change through direct action, and also the overall most cost-effective climate change charity which can reliably reduce emissions without risk (higher-risk options include the advocacy charities Ember, which was previously Sandbag, and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby).

We estimate that Cool Earth is able to reduce emissions by 1 tonne of CO2-equivalent for every $1.34 donated, for directly protected forest specifically (although this figure may be as low as $0.65). If indirectly shielded forest is also included, this drops to $0.38 per tonne of CO2-equivalent. This is 25 times less expensive than most carbon offset providers, which typically reduce emissions by 1 tonne for roughly every $10 spent.1617

Based on our modelling of the effects of climate change on human mortality, this equates to a cost of $97,300 per additional death due to climate change prevented through Cool Earth’s work. Of course, this figure is highly uncertain and does not include the extreme tail risks of catastrophic climate change (see our full report). It also does not include the myriad effects of climate change on biodiversity, animal welfare, the natural environment, and other areas which may not have yet been identified. Nonetheless, Cool Earth mitigates climate change more cost-effectively than any other charities working on direct mitigation which we are aware of at the moment, and we are confident that Cool Earth is one of the most-effective charities in this area.

Cost-effectiveness [⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪]

Based on its projects to date, Cool Earth currently spends approximately £10,000 to fund a partnership with a new village.18 This results in a current cost of approximately US$100 per acre directly protected by these partnerships, although this is subject to uncertainty arising from foreign exchange rates, inflation, and operating costs in different countries.19 However, this uncertainty does not result in a great deal of variability - Cool Earth estimates the range to be from $80 to $120.20

In areas protected, monitoring has found canopy loss of roughly 0.5%.21 In comparable areas nearby which are not protected, canopy loss is 28%.22 Given this, Cool Earth does not simply reduce CO2-equivalent emissions by the 272 tonnes for every acre protected, but instead reduces the probability of logging of any given area of protected forest from 28% to 0.5%, which is equivalent to an emission reduction of roughly 74.8tCO2eq per acre (or a range of 53.4-115.4tCO2eq/acre).23

There is also a degree of uncertainty in the amount of CO2 stored in above-ground biomass. Some measurements in Peru, where two of Cool Earth’s current major projects are located, are as low as 233tCO2/acre.24 In Papua New Guinea, measurements as high as 313tCO2/acre have been made,25 along with midline measurements of 270tCO2/acre in the Democratic Republic of Congo.26 Cool Earth’s ongoing projects span all three locations, although the projects in PNG and the DRC are likely to continue for longer (both the Ashaninka and Awajun Projects are expected to only need three more years of funding, while the Orangerie Bay and Lubutu Projects are at earlier stages and are each expected to require funding for another seven years).27 Thus, it is likely that future donations to Cool Earth will result in emission reduction at higher rates of 270-313tCO2/acre as they will fund projects in the same areas where measurements have indicated higher levels of carbon storage.

Given these factors, we estimate that Cool Earth reduces greenhouse gas emissions through direct protection of forests at a rate of $1.34 per tonne of CO2-equivalent. Despite the uncertainty which this figure is subject to, we estimate that this figure will be no higher than $1.87/tCO2eq and no lower than $0.65/tCO2eq.

However, this does not include the emission reduction effects of those areas of forest which are indirectly shielded by Cool Earth’s partnerships. As of January of 2015, Cool Earth had directly protected 641,000 acres of rainforest and, it is estimated, shielded an additional 1,633,253 acres (498,999 in the Ashaninka Project, 41,966 in the Awajun Project, 643,196 in the Lubutu Project, and 53,373 in the Orangerie Bay Project, with the remainder coming from projects already completed),28 although the 53,373 acres shielded in the Orangerie Bay Project may change somewhat in future as community boundaries are redrawn.29 These estimates are reached “ mapping the community forest boundaries and the physical characteristics that will prevent or reduce the ability of loggers to access the forest. This is done using government boundary maps, GPS coordinates from the ground, satellite images and isoclines to determine terrain that would prevent logging…”.30 Excluded are those areas which would very likely not be logged even without nearby partnerships in place, due to the same obstructive physical characteristics. The physical characteristics in question include: elevation and steep gradients of 50% or more (for instance, forests above 1500m altitude experience little deforestation)31; rivers and water bodies which are too dangerous to traverse due to current or nearby gradient; and national parks with forest wardens already in place to prevent logging (for example, the Otishi National Park which borders the Ashaninka Project).32 Access points such as roads and rivers which may potentially penetrate the shield, including areas of low, flat land within 5.5km of access points,33 are also targeted by Cool Earth and have buffer zones set around them. We are confident in Cool Earth’s analysis of shielding areas, as the process used is to be regularly evaluated and involves extensive use of high-quality satellite imagery where available. Nonetheless, there is still a greater degree of uncertainty in estimating shielded area and, for the Lubutu Project in the DRC, a lesser degree of high-quality data and imagery available.34 The shielding ratio also varies between forests, depending on local terrain, and more recent projects may have a lower ratio of shielding to directly protected forest - for instance, the Orangerie Bay currently has a ratio of 1.62 to 1. In addition, we do not know the probability of logging in areas comparable to those shielded, and roughly assume that it would be similar to that for directly protected areas (that is, 28%).

In our estimates, we have used the Orangerie Bay ratio of 1.62 to 1 as a minimum, and the overall ratio of 2.55 for both our central and high estimate. 2.55 is likely somewhat high, as one of the two major ongoing projects has achieved a far lower ratio, and can hence be considered fairly generous (for this reason, we have specifically included the figures for direct protection in this evaluation and elsewhere). Using these ratios to predict the future levels of shielding which Cool Earth may achieve, our central estimate of cost-effectiveness improves to $0.38//tCO2eq, including both directly protected and indirectly shielded forest. Considering the highest and lowest estimates for each parameter, we are quite confident that the figure is not less than $0.18//tCO2eq and that it is not higher than $0.71//tCO2eq.

Introducing a far greater level of uncertainty, we can very roughly estimate the effect that donations to Cool Earth will have on future human mortality due to climate change. Using our model, we estimate that donations to Cool Earth prevent future deaths due to climate change at an average cost of $345,200 per death through directly protected forests (though this is likely to be a lower central estimate). A higher estimate, still adopting a number of generous assumptions, is $663,400 per death prevented, while a lower bound on cost would be $116,100. If we include indirectly shielded forests, the lower central estimate drops to $97,300 per death prevented (with a higher estimate of $252,900 and lower bound of $32,700).

Even with the most generous assumptions possible, this is still at least one order of magnitude greater than the cost of saving a life through donations to highly effective health charities such as the Against Malaria Foundation (at $3,461).35 Thus, we do not recommend donating to Cool Earth as a means of reducing human mortality. Nonetheless, Cool Earth is still the most cost-effective climate change mitigation charity we have found to date. Specifically for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we recommend Cool Earth highly. For the purposes of reducing the tail risks of climate change, of protecting biodiversity, of protecting the natural environment, and of reducing the other adverse impacts of climate change, it is also likely to be highly cost-effective. In addition, their work is likely to be highly effective in preserving rainforests, as this is what they do most directly, and may also be effective in providing economic empowerment and health benefits to the local communities with which they establish partnerships.

Economic benefits

The benefits provided to local communities through Cool Earth’s sustainable agreements may add a great deal to overall cost-effectiveness. These agreements involve roughly £10,000 of funding provided to each village, although this varies with the size of the forest and population, as well as the expected cost of external threats to the forest and time period of the agreement. They are conditional primarily on the protection of the local area of forest. Minus roughly 10% administration costs, 90% of this funding goes directly to the specific needs of the community. Thus, the actual ratio of benefits to costs may be twice as high as initially assumed.

In addition to simply increasing the money available to local communities, Cool Earth’s work has produced a number of quantifiable improvements:

  • annual cacao yield for Cool Earth’s partners in Peru has increased from 2,581kg in 2012 to 4,842, as well as a higher percentage of the yield being the higher quality criollo cacao, leading to increases in income of more than 100% in that time;
  • boats provided for emergency evacuations in the Ashaninka Project have resulted in 79 lives being saved since 2010;
  • The provision of mosquito nets in the Ashaninka Project since 2011 have also reduced the prevalence of malaria by 64% and only two fatal cases were recorded in 2015; and
  • the establishment of the women’s jewelry cooperative AMARNO in the Urakusa community in 2012 resulted in 98% of the women involved acknowledging that their involvement with AMARNO had empowered them, 100% acknowledging that their self-esteem had improved as a result, and 99% stating that their hopes for the future of their community had also improved.

On one hand, where Cool Earth’s funding has simply strengthened communities to the point where they can resist coercive attempts to log their land without compensation, this can be seen as resulting in, at the very least, a benefit-cost ratio of 0.9 to 1. This could be expected to have an effect similar to cash transfers provided by GiveDirectly or New Incentives, for which there is a great deal of evidence that cash transfers can greatly improve long-term well being and health.36

However, on the other hand, where loggers compensate local communities fairly without resorting to coercive tactics, communities are likely to experience at least some of these benefits with or without their partnerships with Cool Earth. It is hence unclear whether Cool Earth’s counterfactual impact on the well being is as great as might initially be supposed. It is fair to assume that the level of funding provided by Cool Earth exceeds the level of compensation provided by loggers, but perhaps not by a great deal. It is also likely that the uses of funding provided by Cool Earth are more beneficial than the uses of potential income from logging - for instance, mosquito nets (which research indicates are highly effective in reducing disease burden in some areas)37 and evacuation boats (which have already saved 79 lives) - which may be a result of the nature of the agreements and the reluctance of communities to ask for funding for items which are not clearly beneficial. It is unclear, however, exactly what else each community has used their funding on, and entirely speculative what level of compensation they would have otherwise received and how it would have been spent.

Given this, we are highly confident that Cool Earth does have a positive effect on these communities, which is likely to be quite considerable in magnitude. Unfortunately, however, we are unable to assess exactly how large an effect this is.

Below-ground carbon stores

Another factor which may further improve estimates of Cool Earth’s cost-effectiveness is the amount of carbon potentially contained below-ground in the rainforests they protect. The estimates of carbon dioxide stored per acre of forest which were listed above (averaging 272tCO2eq/acre) included only the above-ground stores. The IPCC recognises that, in addition to this carbon stored above-ground, there is also below-ground biomass, dead wood, litter and soil organic matter.38 The majority of additional emissions caused by logging arise from above-ground biomass, but these additional stores may also contribute significantly, particularly as soils are known to constitute the largest terrestrial carbon pool.39

The mangrove forests which make up a portion of Cool Earth’s partnerships in Papua New Guinea, have particularly high levels of below-ground carbon stores, with the majority of carbon stored in soil and pools of dead roots beneath the surface.40 Although such mangrove forests account for less than 1% of the total area of the world’s tropical forests, they make up approximately 3% of the total carbon sequestration in tropical forests.4142 As a result, clearing of mangroves results in particularly high emissions of CO2.4344

However, the amount of below-ground carbon which would be emitted through logging is highly variable among different types of forest, different soil types, and hence among Cool Earth’s different partnerships.4546 We are unable to estimate with any degree of accuracy the levels of emissions of below-ground carbon which might be prevented by Cool Earth’s activities. Although it may increase Cool Earth’s effect somewhat, we do not expect it to exceed 100% of current emission reductions as the majority of emissions from logging remain the result of the loss of aboveground biomass. Particularly for reducing human mortality, given that the differences between Cool Earth’s cost-effectiveness and that of the top health charities is at least 1-2 orders of magnitude, we do not expect this to make a great deal of difference to our recommendations.


Elasticity of timber

One concern for Cool Earth’s cost-effectiveness is the elasticity of timber prices. It is possible that, when logging becomes infeasible in protected areas, loggers may simply move on to other areas. Or, otherwise, the price of timber may increase due to reduced supply and increase logging elsewhere. However, while protecting forests has been found to increase the price of timber and therefore increase demand for logging, the elasticity of wood is such that the demand increases by less than half.4748 Therefore, we might expect that an acre directly protected by Cool Earth actually results in only about half an acre being preserved on net.

However, according to Cool Earth, most logging is not done by career loggers. Thus, when the native community moves on to other work as a result of funding provided by Cool Earth, the loggers do so as well.49 Therefore, it is unlikely that those who would log the protected area would simply move elsewhere.

This does seem plausible, and hence it is unclear exactly how much counterfactual impact of Cool Earth’s work on carbon emissions - whether it lies just over 50% of our estimates above, or closer to 100%. A conservative estimate would roughly double the cost estimates provided above, while a generous estimate would be closer to 100%. Also, it is worth noting, any displacement of logging caused by Cool Earth’s partnerships would result in increases in the counterfactual impact of economic benefits to local communities.


Another concern is that there may potentially be limited room for expansion of such partnership agreements and hence that additional funds may not be used as cost-effectively as they have for projects to date. See ‘Room for more funding’ below for more information.

Other costs

Another concern may be the costs of Cool Earth’s work which aren’t considered in the above evaluation - for instance, hours of work performed by volunteers. From our communications with Cool Earth, it appears that the use of such volunteers is fairly minimal and restricted to administrative and research work in the UK. There are also local paid interns who work in some project areas, but these would be included within Cool Earth’s administrative costs, which are paid for by the Michael Uren Foundation. These make up roughly 10% of overall spending and are already factored into our estimates.

Canopy loss in protected areas

Cool Earth has observed an average canopy loss of 0.5% in protected forest areas.50 This may potentially indicate that a small number of agreements are broken and that, therefore, agreements may be less effective than previously thought. However, this minor canopy loss is accounted for by traditional use of the forest as allowed under the agreements. This traditional use includes limited harvesting of wood for use in the construction of houses, community spaces, or tools for personal or collective use, or for the purpose of agro-forestry where approved. Cool Earth does not expect this to canopy loss to increase much in future (although they are still trying to account for population expansion in these projections).51 In addition, we have factored this 0.5% loss into our modelling for both protected and shielded forest.

Communities in shielded areas

One particular concern we had initially when attempting to evaluate Cool Earth’s impact on local communities is that communities located in shielded areas may potentially be left worse off than they otherwise would be. The funding provided by Cool Earth to those communities with which it establishes agreements, and the resulting benefits, will most likely exceed the compensation which they would otherwise receive from logging. However, communities in the indirectly shielded areas do not receive such funding and, at the same time, also miss out on any possible compensation from the logging which might otherwise occur in their area.

This is quite concerning, as it may mean that, counterfactually, Cool Earth’s work results in fewer economic benefits for the wider population than would otherwise be obtained. It is part of the reason why we have not used Cool Earth’s economic impacts as a major part of our cost-effectiveness analysis.

Cool Earth recognises that this is an area for further research, but suggests that this effect is not overly significant. Most shielded communities lie within the same geographical area as the protected communities or are, in some way, related to those communities. Due to this proximity, they still experience many of the economic benefits of the protected communities.

In addition, the number of communities located in shielded areas is relatively low. The majority of these areas in existing projects are uninhabited and would, as a result, be at particular risk of logging.

Furthermore, in the few cases where there are people living in shielded areas but not related to protected villages, the majority are uncontacted peoples and do not currently wish to have access to markets or support from organisations such as Cool Earth.

Replaceability of protection work

No one else is doing comparable preservation work in the areas in which Cool Earth works. Thus, it is unlikely that the same forests would be spared if Cool Earth were not operating.

Availability of monitoring data

Much of the monitoring data and evaluation reports used by Cool Earth is not currently available to the public. This raises minor concerns about transparency.

However, Cool Earth aims to improve upon this in the coming year. They intend to use funding from the Disney Foundation to publish open access data on forest health and biodiversity in the Ashaninka and Orangerie Bay Projects, as well as data from their household surveys and social impact reports. In addition to this, Cool Earth is working to make more data available to the communities with which they work.

Regarding the satellite data used to evaluate canopy loss and terrain, Cool Earth purchases this from a variety of sources and evaluates it internally (with support from Exeter University when required). It is quite understandable that this data cannot be released pubically.

Robustness of evidence [⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪]

Although there have not been any external randomised controlled trials of the impacts of Cool Earth’s work on emissions and on human welfare, there is a considerable body of evidence supporting the nature of their interventions.

As a method of reducing carbon emissions, the IPCC recognises that reducing deforestation and managing forests sustainably are among the “...most cost-effective mitigation options…” for reducing emissions and estimates that it would cost achieve emission reductions at less than $20/tCO2eq.52 It has been found that tropical forests are highly effective at absorbing carbon and offsetting emissions, and it is estimated that such forests could offset more than 50% of greenhouse gases produced from anthropogenic energy generation by 2050.53

As for Cool Earth’s strategy of community forest management, this has been found to result in lower and less variable rates of deforestation than areas protected under alternative models and, indeed, found to be the most effective known model overall.545556 This level of effectiveness persists despite such indigenous communities being known to experience greater pressures to permit logging.57

One experiment considering a conditional cash transfer intervention in Uganda not wholly dissimilar to Cool Earth’s approach elsewhere, in a randomised controlled format.58 Across 121 villages and over 2 years, it was found that payments of $28 per hectare (far lower than the funding provided by Cool Earth) reduced self-reported tree-clearing and canopy loss (confirmed by satellite imagery) from 7-10% to 2-5%.59 This corresponded to $0.52 paid out to villages for every ton of CO2 emissions averted. Including total project costs (which are far greater than Cool Earth’s relatively low administrative costs of 10%), this rose to only $1.17 per ton of CO2 averted. This confirms a strong causal relationship between payments and reduced emissions and supports the efficacy of Cool Earth’s projects.

It is also reassuring that Cool Earth’s model of sustainable agreements to reduce emissions has been endorsed by the author of the Stern Report and various other leading academics.60

In addition, however, it is worth noting that much of the evidence available to us regarding the area of forest protected and shielded by Cool Earth is self-reported and we have not attempted to independently verify all of this information.

Quality of implementation [⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫]

We are also highly confident in the quality of implementation of Cool Earth’s projects. Cool Earth engages in ongoing and rigorous monitoring and evaluation of all protected areas, and claims to constantly update their impact statistics and self-evaluation.

In particular, in 2016 they have focused on evaluating forest health, biodiversity clean water and nutrition in protected areas. With funding from the Disney Foundation, Cool Earth aims to survey biodiversity through camera traps, forest transects and hunting surveys this year. They have also conducted diet and nutrition surveys in partner communities in Peru and, as a result, have identified malnutrition (particularly anemia) and sanitation as major underlying health issues within these communities.61

They have also confirmed levels of canopy loss in both protected areas and comparable areas of forest elsewhere by satellite imagery (also confirmed by the International Arm of the French Forestry Commission),62 and have found that this measures at only 0.5% within protected areas and 28% in comparable areas elsewhere. The extremely low level of canopy loss in protected areas gives us great confidence in the effectiveness of their work.

In addition, their level of cost-effectiveness is highly impressive, given that the most similar experiment involved administrative costs of more than 50%,63 compared with Cool Earth’s 10%.64 Likewise, they reduce emissions at less than 1/20 of the cost estimated by the IPCC for similar forest protection interventions.65

Room for more funding (✔)

We believe that Cool Earth can continue to use additional funding productively.

Since 2007, they have raised £20.3 million through a combination of their own fundraising (£12.2 million) and partnerships with other organisations (£8.1 million), and have used this to directly protect 641,000 acres of forest.66

Cool Earth’s total expected expenditure for 2016/2017 is £1.2 million. This currently includes planned partnerships with a further eight villages, totalling £80,000. In addition, their strategic plan involves three more years of income stream development in the two projects in Peru, totalling £152,000 per year - £56,000 of bridge funding for the Ashaninka Project, £20,000 for the Awajun Project, £30,000 for a nutrition program, £11,000 for biodiversity monitoring, and £10,000 in costs for facilitating exchanges between community partners. This plan also involves seven further years of funding for the Lubutu and Orangerie Bay Projects in the DRC and PNG. This includes £112,000 per year in the DRC (£48,000 for bridge funding, and £64,000 to implement community-wide benefits such as health posts, schools, solar panels, and energy-efficient cookstoves) and £52,000 per year in PNG (£39,000 as bridge funding and £13,000 for project implementation, including local forest-watch teams, biodiversity monitoring, household surveys, and the provision of tools and equipment).

In addition to these costs, Cool Earth has also identified 114 additional villages in the regions in which they operate which would be suitable for establishing partnerships. These villages could potentially absorb £1.14 million in funding to protect neighbouring forests.

Under the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy initiative, Cool Earth is also involved in developing new partnerships in other countries.To carry out a full process of establishing partnerships in a new country, with the free prior and informed consent of communities, costs roughly £300,000 per country. In addition to future projects elsewhere in the DRC and in the Northern Highlands of PNG, Cool Earth also plans to begin new partnerships in four Commonwealth nations, and is currently evaluating feasibility in Tanzania, Uganda, Belize, Guyana, and India.

Given this, it seems that Cool Earth is well placed to scale up their operations. We are confident that they could productively use, at the very least, £1.14 million in additional funding. However, it is quite likely that they could use well over £2 million at the same level of cost-effectiveness.