Most countries have included forest and land use in their efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxides and other greenhouse gases—but as those in the carbon-accounting world will tell you, countries can’t manage what they can’t measure and monitor.
And, in the past, many developing countries simply didn’t have the capacity to monitor their forests and related carbon emissions.
Now research shows that the past decade has seen a marked improvement, driven largely by the struggle against climate change.
“If there is forest monitoring capacity in a country, it’s there for a reason,” said Martin Herold, senior research associate at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a co-author of a new paper assessing 99 countries’ monitoring capacity.
“Monitoring forest area change, or deforestation and reforestation, for the purpose of climate is a relatively new thing. In the past, developing countries didn’t have much incentive to do that.”
Forest monitoring became a priority for many tropical forest countries in the 1970s and 1980s, with the boom of the logging industry. When global support for logging waned around the turn of the millennium, so did some countries’ interest in keeping track of their trees.
Then climate change—and results-based schemes such as REDD+—provided a new incentive for national monitoring of forests.
“It’s important to know how much and where forest are changing and also what drives processes such as deforestation or reforestation,” said Erika Romijn, lead author of the study. “Because if countries know this, then they can implement better policies, and they can start actions to mitigate climate change.”
Forests in the tropics are particularly important to climate, as they can store 50 percent more carbon in the trees than other types of forests.
If you cannot measure it, you cannot monitor it, and if you cannot monitor it, you cannot manage it
Therefore, Romijn, Herold and their colleagues looked at data from 99 countries in the tropics and sub-tropics. They analyzed the data and results of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) most recent Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) to evaluate each country’s ability to monitor its overall change in forest area. They also assessed countries’ capacities to carry out on-the-ground studies of the species and number of trees, forest biomass, soils, and other factors, and their ability to report on the different forest carbon pools, rating capacities on a scale from “very good” to “low.”
A comparison with findings from 10 years ago revealed big improvements. The portion of the world’s tropical forests with “good” or “very good” forest area change monitoring and remote sensing capacities increased from 69 percent in 2005 to 83 percent in 2015, covering nearly 1700 million hectares of forests in 2015. Ability to conduct field-based inventories also increased, from 38 percent in 2005 to 66 percent in 2015.
Improvements were also seen country by country. In 2015, 54 of the 99 countries had good or very good forest area change monitoring, up from 37 in 2005. That means these countries were able to produce their own forest change maps.
Countries often use satellite data to monitor their forest area, such as images from NASA’s Landsat program. Satellite data are archived and made available for free, but analyzing the data requires software skills, a reliable Internet connection, and data storage infrastructure.
In some countries, particularly in Africa, even downloading the massive files can be a technical challenge, Romijn says.
Global programs supported the improvements, the study found, particularly the UN-REDD National Programme and FAO’s National Forest Monitoring and Assessment program: Of the countries that participated in the FAO program, 86 percent improved their capacities, while 79 percent of those participating in UN-REDD did.
But the programs didn’t work for everyone: Some countries participating in UN-REDD national programs, for example, have not yet shown any improvement in their National Forest Assessment report to FAO.
“Not all countries have good capacities. A lot of efforts are still needed to further improve and sustain the capacities in those countries,” Romijn said. “These international programs such as those from FAO and UN-REDD and the World Bank help support these countries, and they should continue in the future.”
The area needing most improvement is the capacity to monitor and report on a forest’s carbon pool, which requires on-the-ground measurements of biomass, organic matter in the soil, and dead wood and litter on the forest floor. In 2015, only 15 countries had quality carbon pool reporting—although a marked improvement on three countries in 2005, still far from what’s necessary to make global policy decisions on climate.
“This is important information if you want to manage your forests well,” Herold said.
“If you cannot measure it, you cannot monitor it, and if you cannot monitor it, you cannot manage it.”