Keeping tabs on the quantity of carbon stored in forests is a vital part of global efforts to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
Protecting and sustainably managing forests could contribute up to 30 percent of the goal established by the U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change, which aims to prevent mean annual temperatures from rising more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.
Recent studies have projected that forests could reach a tipping point if atmospheric temperatures become too hot, hobbling their capacity to store carbon and turning them into emitters instead. As the planet warms, photosynthesis will be reduced and the result will be a dramatic increase in the amount of carbon dioxide released by trees through respiration, which is normally how trees breathe, allowing them to keep cool.
But more comprehensive surveillance methods hold promise, according to scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands working in partnership with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Forest monitoring itself is not new. Since 1946, FAO has regularly conducted a global Forest Resources Assessment on forest area and carbon content using data from forest inventories provided by countries.
In recent times, the use of satellite remote sensing data has become more common, offering a picture of changes to forest ecosystems over the years.
Now, a large-scale global study of monitoring methods and data conducted in 236 countries and territories published in Environmental Research Letters journal demonstrates significant improvements in the capacity for national forest monitoring and reporting due to improvements in data gathering — particularly in the tropics — over the last 15 years.
“Our study found significant improvements in national forest monitoring capacities,” said Karimon Nesha, a researcher at WUR and lead author on the paper.
Forest area monitoring using remote sensing at good to very good levels increased from 55 countries in the assessment of 2005 to 99 countries in 2020, while the number of countries with good to very good use of National Forest Inventory increased from 48 in FRA 2005 to 102 in FRA 2020. Overall, this means that 3.4 billion hectares — or 85 percent of global forest cover — is monitored with good to very good use of remote sensing or National Forest Inventory data in FRA 2020.
More effective monitoring capacity is helpful for countries reporting on the status of their forests, enabling them to better tailor efforts to meet their climate and development commitments, particularly for establishing the requisite Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
NDCs are a central component of the strategy to prevent post-industrial average temperatures from rising to 1.5 degrees Celsius or higher and countries are required to provide data on greenhouse gas emissions and reductions targets they aims to meet post-2020 under the Paris Agreement.
Other key U.N. agreements that stand to benefit from improved monitoring capacity and the transparency it affords include the Sustainable Development Goals and the New York Declaration on Forests, the latter a commitment to reduce deforestation agreed at U.N. climate talks in 2014.
Countries trying to qualify for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions caused by Deforestation and forest Degradation) payments can also take advantage of better data.
“Transparency is critical for managing the relationship between forest monitoring and forest governance,” said Amy Duchelle, team leader of Climate Change, Energy and Low Carbon Development at CIFOR. “It’s also the backbone of the Paris Agreement.”
To reach their findings, scientists analyzed the use of remote sensing and National Forest Inventories for monitoring forest area, carbon stock, biomass from the 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2020 FRA.
The results, which showed that the use of remote sensing and National Forest Inventories increased significantly worldwide between FRA 2005 and 2020, led to more up-to-date and higher quality reporting, the report said.
The tropical and non-tropical country capacity differences seen for 2005 have increasingly turned into methodological differences with many large and tropical countries using a combination of remote sensing and National Forest Inventories, while many European countries and the United States use multi-date National Forest Inventories for their assessment reporting.
The study highlights a positive effect of capacity development activities in tropical countries with more improvements in countries that have received dedicated forest monitoring support — listed in the Global Forests Observations Initiative (GFOI) inventory of activities.
Overall, the researchers found that the trajectory was toward improvement in forest monitoring, particularly in tropical countries where the use of remote sensing at good to very good levels improved by 49 percent between FRA 2005 and FRA 2015.
National Forest Inventory use improved by more than 70 percent during the same time span.
Since 2015, the number of countries with good to very good use of remote sensing and National Forest Inventories increased by 33 percent and 58 percent respectively.
“We often say that one of the biggest achievements of REDD+ has been the increase in national forest monitoring capacity in tropical countries, and this paper provides further evidence for that,” Duchelle said. “A large proportion of countries showed no capacity improvements when they were without international support, which highlights the need to continue and amplify such investments.”
Researchers found that while across the tropics there were significant capacity improvements, consistent use of remote sensing data in Africa and parts of Asia is still rare.
Globally, reporting on about 85 percent of forest cover is now based on nationally-derived remote sensing and National Forest Inventories data, said Martin Herold, a professor at WUR and a CIFOR senior associate, adding that countries in the Global North mainly use National Forest Inventories data and countries in the Global South mainly use remote sensing data.
“While we now have a more complete picture of the way countries are monitoring forests and the data they rely on to do so, we still need to conduct further investigations into how country governance and other factors influence forest monitoring capacities,” Herold said.
“For now, we have the information required to evaluate the need for further efforts to improve national capacities through the use of remote sensing and National Forest Inventory data sources and quality in the context of evaluating forest-based climate change mitigation and development initiatives,” he said.
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