DG’s Column

Clocking the world’s forests

What indications of forests and forestry should be communicated if we want to provide a representative and understandable picture?

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In an earlier blog entry, I discussed how the annual global deforestation area is determined and the fact that this number has been used as a universal indicator of how the world’s forests are faring. I also promised to return to this topic, with a new way of illustrating forests and forestry. Instead of a deforestation clock, CIFOR is now introducing a World Forests Clock on its homepage, counting five key flows instead of a single number. With this new clock we are proposing a more comprehensive perspective on forests and forestry to stimulate thought and dialogue.

Over the past decades, lots of work has been done to define how forests and forestry should be monitored. However, these expert communities have worked somewhat away from mainstream and popular communication on forests. International processes on criteria for sustainable forest management have come up with, literally, hundreds of indicators, many of which are difficult to assess or even understand. National reports on the state of forests have taken similar approaches and painted a comprehensive picture, but one that is also complex and inaccessible. FAO’s FRA 2005 report banked on these processes and illustrated trends for 20 or so key variables with reasonable data coverage. Following Rio+20, we are now entering a new political process to determine ‘sustainable development goals’ and there is already speculation over which indicators we should use – a decision that is likely to be determined through political negotiations rather than science.

So what indications of forests and forestry should be communicated if we want to provide a representative and understandable picture? Clearly, a small number of parameters is needed to communicate well to a broader audience. The highly complex sets of intergovernmental development indicators don’t do the job. On the other hand, using deforestation as the one and only simplifies too much and gives an incomplete picture. Between these extremes, we have made a shortlist for clocking the world’s forests and forestry. Five clocks, like the row of clocks behind hotel reception desks showing the time in different zones, here illustrate what is happening globally with our forests and forestry.

Note that this is not a complete set of indicators. It is a set of measurements for which data happen to be available. They do present some food for thought and an illustration of what is happening to the world’s forests, and how forests and forestry can contribute to a sustainable future. It is also important to note that each clock can be perceived as a positive or a negative indication of progress, depending on the user’s development perspective and political views.

Clock 1: Deforestation. This remains a key measure on the shortlist. It is well known and it illustrates a global issue that is high on the political agenda. It leads to questions of land use planning and landscape management, and what the overall return for new agricultural land might be. It is a focus of the REDD+ process. For the moment, the best data we have say that global deforestation is -13 Mha/year, which corresponds to -0.41 ha/s (See my earlier blog entry on CIFOR’s previous ‘World Deforestation Clock’).

Clock 2: Forest planting. Planted forests account for only 7% of all forests but they are key to sustainable landscapes and sustainable provision of bio-based products (notably fibre and energy), as well as provision of ecosystem services (notably watershed protection). There is an important debate on how planted forests are to be established and managed, including questions about monocultures of exotics in the tropics and their implications for local people. At the same time it is through planted forests that we produce as much as two-thirds of industrial wood, and it is likely that this proportion will continue to increase. Substantial investments are made in planted forests, with a global area increase of about 3.4 Mha/year or 0.11 ha/s (see Carle and Holmgren 2008).

Clock 3: Renewable energy. Biomass provides an important chunk of our overall energy supply, in the range of 10% of all energy consumed, and it is all renewable (see the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2010). A very high proportion of this biomass comes from forests and trees, including traditional wood energy (which remains essential in all regions and for billions of people), residuals and waste from forest industries, and second-generation biofuels. We present the overall rate of energy from biomass, recognizing that some is provided from the wider landscape and also in the form of waste. Bioenergy power supplies about 1.62 TW, equivalent to 0.45 GWh/s, or almost 5 times the combined nuclear power potential in the world.

Clock 4: Carbon sequestration. Contrary to the high-profile picture of forest area loss, the world’s forests continue to be a considerable net sink of atmospheric carbon. IPCC already reported this in its 4th assessment report. A recent paper by Pan et al. confirms this and concludes that the rate of carbon sequestration in forests is 2.4 Pg CO2 eq/year, corresponding to 76 tonnes/s – a rate equal to about 5% of current overall anthropogenic emissions. If we deduct the emissions from forest losses through land use change, the picture is less rosy, but still the overall forest carbon stock is increasing by about 1.1 Pg CO2 eq/year.

Clock 5: Value of forest products trade. A world with green growth makes good use of sustainable forest products. One measure of the importance of forest products is provided by FAO’s annual trade statistics (2010 edition). While these statistics only include wood products, and not the increasingly valuable trade in non-timber forest products, these are the best publicly available numbers. The rate of traded forest goods is about US$230 billion/year, or about US$7239/s. This represents a small but significant proportion (about 2%) of global merchandise trade, and about 10% of trade aggregated under agriculture and food in some reports.

I look forward to a debate over the World Forests Clock, including the selection of parameters. If there were reliable gauges, then I would have considered adding clocks for forestry contribution to rural economies, loss of forest-dependent species and perhaps local climate regulation (temperature, water provision, rainfall generation). But we have surprisingly few generally agreed measurements of these things – perhaps this can serve as stimulation for future research?

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Further reading

Carle, J. and P. Holmgren. 2008. Wood from planted forests: a global outlook 2005-2030. Forest Products Journal 58(12): 6-18. http://www.environmentportal.in/files/dec08-f.pdf

FAO. 2006. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005 Main report. ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/008/A0400E/A0400E00.pdf

FAO. 2010. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 Main report.  http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i1757e/i1757e.pdf

FAO. 2011. Global forest land-use change from 1990 to 2005. http://foris.fao.org/static/data/fra2010/RSS_Summary_Report_lowres.pdf

FAO. 2012. Forest products 2006-2010. FAO Statistics Series 201. http://www.fao.org/docrep/015/i2715m/i2715m00.pdf

IEA. 2010. World Energy Outlook 2010.  International Energy Agency. http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/publications/weo-2010/

IPCC. 2007. Climate change 2007: The physical science basis. Cambridge University Press. http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml#.UKLqFePZ8n8

Pan, Y. et al. 2011. A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science 333(6045): 988-993.

WTO. 2012. International Trade Statistics 2011. www.wto.org/statistics