The Indonesian rain forest is worth more intact than cut down for palm oil production, researchers say. A new analysis shows that payments to reduce carbon emissions could generate more income than palm oil.

A proposed scheme called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (Redd) could make protecting rain forests profitable, eliminating the motivation to cut them down. Under this program, the companies that currently sell palm oil could be called on to protect the forested lands they own instead, and sell "carbon credits" for the amount of carbon contained in that forest.

Palm oil is a highly sought-after substance used for food and body care products and also for biodiesel. It’s also highly damaging to wildlife and the environment. Companies burn and clear swathes of forest to grow their crops, forcing a huge variety of species out of their homes – including the endangered orangutan.

Dr. Oscar Venter from the University of Queensland, who led the study, hopes it will strengthen the case to include Redd in the climate agreement that will replace the Kyoto Treaty, which will be decided upon at a meeting in Copenhagen later this year.

"Despite their rich biodiversity, we haven't been able to protect these forests with conservation funds," says Dr. Venter. "So we looked at what Redd would be able to do and what that would mean for biodiversity."

Not everyone is convinced that Redd will be enough to stop the staggering pace of tropical forest destruction. William Laurance, a scientist from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, says palm oil production is just too profitable.

"Redd will only be competitive for slowing destruction of peat forests, which are jam-packed with carbon and become massive sources of greenhouse gases when cleared,” he told BBC News. "But we can pressure the worst companies and fight to protect the highest-priority areas.”

Indonesian rain forest worth more standing than cut down
Palm oil production is lucrative, but selling carbon credits could replace that income and protect endangered orangutans.