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Evaluation 1 of “Money (Not) to Burn: Payments for Ecosystem Services to Reduce Crop Residue Burning”

Anonymous evaluation of “Money (Not) to Burn: Payments for Ecosystem Services to Reduce Crop Residue Burning”

Published onOct 30, 2023
Evaluation 1 of “Money (Not) to Burn: Payments for Ecosystem Services to Reduce Crop Residue Burning”

Summary measures

Overall assessment

Answer: 90/100

90% CI: (75,95)

Quality scale rating

“On a ‘scale of journals’, what ‘quality of journal’ should this be published in?: Note: 0= lowest/none, 5= highest/best”

Answer: 5

90% CI: (2, 5)

See here for a more detailed breakdown of the evaluators’ ratings and predictions.

Written report


This paper presents a randomized evaluation of a new intervention to target air pollution: paying farmers in North India not to burn crop stubble. Air pollution is a tremendous public health concern in India, and stubble burning (in order to quickly clear the field for winter planting) is one of the biggest contributors to PM pollution in North India. Both bans on stubble burning and subsidizing alternatives have failed to gain traction, and so this paper aims to test a new intervention to see whether it can address the problem. Farmers were promised a payment for ecosystem services (PES) contract in which they would be paid if they could verify that they did not burn their crop stubble before winter planting. There were two broad treatments: standard PES, in which the payment was entirely conditional, and upfront PES, in which farmers who agreed to the contract were paid part of the contract value as an unconditional upfront payment. The authors found that the upfront PES contract reduced stubble burning by 10 percentage points, whereas standard PES had no effect. They calculate that upfront PES saves a life for $3,000-$4,400, which is much lower than the mortality cost of crop burning and much cheaper than other pollution abatement opportunities.


This paper identifies a politically feasible and cost-effective solution to a major public health problem. Libraries could be filled with studies showing negative effects of air pollution, but there are far fewer studies that propose solutions that could actually be implemented in developing countries today, and test them with an RCT. This aspect alone makes the paper an amazing contribution to our knowledge.

Moreover, while this goes beyond the scope of the paper and into speculative territory, the upfront PES contract they describe has a lot of potential at scale. First, if it was implemented at scale and had a history of reliable payments, it would increase trust among farmers that they would actually be paid for not burning their stubble. Second, having the carrot of PES payments for not burning stubble would make the stick of punishing stubble burning more credible; it’s impossible to punish the 90% of farmers who burn their stubble, but if that percentage was 78% or even lower, it would be more feasible. Finally, scaling this intervention could increase learning about alternative crop residue management (CRM) techniques and make farmers more likely to adopt them. As a bonus, it does not require legal enforcement capacity and thus could be arranged by a nonprofit as well as by the government.

Furthermore, the results are far from a black box—the authors have a lot of data on farmer heterogeneity that can be used to get close to understanding their results. Understanding how farmers respond to regulations and incentives is important in many settings beyond stubble burning, and the authors’ data allows us to get closer to understanding farmer decision making. Even specific to stubble burning, the authors are able to focus on the difference between in-situ and ex-situ CRM techniques and thus show that ex-situ CRM is the way to go for policymakers.

In short, this paper cleanly identifies an attractive policy that solves a big problem—nothing in the next section takes away from that.


There are a few ways in which the paper could be improved:

  1. The paper does not address a puzzle; why do experienced farmers have negative beliefs about alternative CRM?

    1. 75% of study-enrolled farmers have tried non-burning CRM techniques (Table A.1), and they show negative beliefs about those techniques (Table 1), but the study finds no effect of the program on winter cropping time or yields. If alternative CRM has no negative effects, why do experienced farmers have negative beliefs about it?

    2. It’s possible that the intent-to-treat shown in Table A.8 underestimates the negative effects on yield because of the large number of never-takers (since 78% of the upfront PES group also burned their stubble). One important check would be to use randomization into the upfront PES group as an instrument for using alternative CRM, and thus estimate the effect of alternative CRM on winter yields and delays. It’s possible that this approach would find a significant negative effect of alternative CRM and thus validate farmers’ negative beliefs about CRM.

    3. Another possibility is that the farmers who complied with the treatment (in the IV sense, not in the sense that they followed the contract) selected into compliance because of idiosyncratic shocks to their kharif harvest time. Farmers who saw their kharif harvest come early would have a lower cost of doing alternative CRM (less risk of delays), and that could have induced them to comply with upfront PES. This should be measurable - did farmers who requested checks of their fields (and thus didn’t burn) do so earlier than farmers who burned their stubble (according to either spot checks or machine learning)? This could be used to estimate a selection model similar to Suri (2011) to understand the importance of heterogeneous costs to farmers choosing whether to comply with upfront PES or not.

  2. The paper could do more to identify the mechanism behind why upfront PES works when standard PES fails.

    1. One way that the authors could extract more information from the existing sample is to use the kappa-weighting procedure of Abadie (2003) to compare the mean characteristics of compliers and never-takers. (Here, I mean compliers in the IV sense, not farmers who followed the contract.) In particular, kappa-weighting could be used to answer some questions that illustrate why upfront PES works:

      1. Do compliers have less negative beliefs about alternative CRM than never-takers?

      2. Are compliers more likely to report that cash constraints play a role in their CRM decisions than never-takers?

      3. Are compliers more likely to trust that they will be repaid than never-takers?

    2. Understanding the mechanism behind these effects is first-order, not just because they help us make sense of the results, but because they can improve targeting and cost-effectiveness of an upfront PES contract. Targeting the payments at farmers who are most likely to be marginal minimizes the payments made to farmers who will eventually burn their stubble anyway.

  3. The cost-effectiveness calculations could include climate co-benefits from reduced stubble burning.

    1. Venkatramanan et al (2021) estimate that stubble burning of rice, wheat and sugarcane across India caused 9.1 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions (CO2e) in 2017, based on methane and nitrous oxide release.

    2. With the authors’ estimate that 8.8 million acres of farmland are burned each year, this means that burning one acre is responsible for 1.034 tons of CO2e.

    3. Since upfront PES results in an acre unburned for $34-$51, this means that upfront PES averts a ton of CO2e for $34-$51, which is below nearly all estimates of social cost of carbon.

    4. Thus, upfront PES has benefits that exceed costs even without considering air pollution. It is worth including these estimates as part of the cost-effectiveness calculation.

  4. The paper does not account for machine learning prediction error in its inference.

    1. The main outcome of interest, crop burning, is mostly not measured directly but rather is the prediction of a machine learning model. While it is common practice to treat machine learning predictions as perfectly measured, it is not a good practice and can severely bias the results. Critically, this is non-classical measurement error. Although economists are used to thinking about classical measurement error in the dependent variable as being innocuous, prediction error in this case is non-classical in the sense explained below.

    2. This particular kind of error causes problems for both point estimates and inference. The first issue is that it causes attenuation bias in the estimates: many plots are randomly misclassified, so the treatment will mechanically be less correlated with any particular classification. (See these notes, page 11 for more details.) This would make the authors' estimates conservative, which is not a problem for their main conclusion - though it is still desirable to fix, and would show their treatment to be even more cost-effective.

    3. However, the second issue is a problem for their conclusions. The conventional standard errors they use are too small to capture the true uncertainty in the treatment effect estimates, because they fail to take into account prediction errors by the machine learning model. This could potentially cause them to over-reject the null of no treatment effect. (Although, the net effect of this and the attenuation bias above is ambiguous.)

    4. As a simple intuition check, imagine that the machine learning model simply classified plots at random. Then the treatment effect estimate would be uncertain not just because of sampling randomness, but because of the randomness in which plots were classified as burned or non-burned (which obviously affects the estimate). However, the standard errors would not take into account the second type of randomness and would thus be too small. 

    5. The model in this paper obviously does better than random chance, but there is nothing special about that example; as long as the model's accuracy is not 100%, there is uncertainty over which plots were classified accurately. The standard errors do not recognize this kind of uncertainty - they effectively assume that the model's accuracy is 100%, and thus artificially shrink variance in the treatment effect estimates.

    6. This issue can be fixed in different ways. If the authors don't care about the attenuation bias (which cannot reverse their conclusions) and only want to fix the inference issues, the simplest approach is a bootstrap, using different subsamples of the ground truth burning data to train different models and using the distribution of treatment effects to construct standard errors. But my non-expert reading of the statistics literature is that the efficient approach is the one constructed by Chakrabortty and Cai (2017), which will improve both estimation and inference.

Evaluator details

  1. How long have you been in this field?

Two years

  1. How many proposals, papers, and projects have you evaluated/reviewed (for journals, grants, or other peer-review)?


Works Cited:

Abadie, Alberto. 2003. “Semiparametric Instrumental Variable Estimation of Treatment Response Models.” Journal of Econometrics 113(2): 231–63. [1]

Angelopoulos, Anastasios N. et al. 2023. “Prediction-Powered Inference.” (October 30, 2023). [2]

Chakrabortty, Abhishek, and Tianxi Cai. 2018. “Efficient and Adaptive Linear Regression in Semi-Supervised Settings.” The Annals of Statistics 46(4). (October 30, 2023). [3]

Suri, Tavneet. 2011. “Selection and Comparative Advantage in Technology Adoption.” Econometrica 79(1): 159–209. [4]

Venkatramanan, V., Shachi Shah, Ashutosh Kumar Rai, and Ram Prasad. 2021. “Nexus Between Crop Residue Burning, Bioeconomy and Sustainable Development Goals Over North-Western India.” Frontiers in Energy Research 8. (October 30, 2023). [5]

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