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Can Climate Action Resuscitate Tropical Forests?

To be successful, money pledged to protect forests must tackle the underlying drivers of deforestation.

For decades, environmentalists have described shrinking forests as the planet’s “green lungs”. In Copenhagen, governments appeared to agree when they offered life support to preserve carbon-trapping tropical forests in the form of a major cash infusion. But can pumping money into forests save the climate? And can climate protection measures preserve beleaguered forests?

Each year about 13 million hectares of the world’s forests are lost due to deforestation, an area the size of Greece. This has serious implications for the forest-dependent poor, the world’s biodiversity, and climate change. Deforestation is responsible for about 13% of current global greenhouse gas emissions. The $3.5 billion pledge by the United States and five other countries to help developing countries protect forests as part of a new international climate protection agreement is the single largest proposed investment ever made in sustaining forests. But to be successful this money must tackle the underlying drivers of deforestation.

The culprits in tropical forest destruction are multiple and complex, but two stand out– misaligned economic incentives and weak forest governance, meaning the processes, policies, and laws by which forest management decisions are made. Historically it has been challenging to gauge the impact of efforts to reverse these drivers and the resulting consequences for forest health. In particular, reliable up-to-date spatial information on forest cover has been lacking. Such limited transparency was a major reason why efforts to curb forest loss in the 1980’s under the UN-led Tropical Forest Action Plan largely failed.

Today’s technologies can help solve this problem. Widely available remote sensing technologies can measure tree cover change down to a size as small as a football field. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has been working with partners at the South Dakota State University to use MODIS and Landsat satellite imagery to track, in a consistent manner, how forests are changing around the globe. By scaling up and combining such world-class expertise with local capacity-building efforts in developing nations, such information can provide the much needed checks and balances to spur improvements in forest management and governance.

In Indonesia, for example, WRI has been working with the Ministry of Forestry and civil society organizations to introduce some of these novel approaches and combine them with local knowledge to accurately assess forest change on an annual basis. In the Congo Basin, WRI is strengthening local capacity to estimate deforestation and degradation accurately and building local organizations to serve as training centers on the use of remote sensing information.

Progress is also being made in the tricky area of developing indicators to measure the quality of forest governance---including transparency, participation, accountability, coordination and capacity. In Cameroon, for example, providing transparency on forest concessions, logging roads and forest cover change has helped reduce illegal logging by increasing pressure on public officials to enforce regulations and by providing information to wood product purchasers on logging companies violating laws.

Like anyone else, decision makers responsible for forest management are more likely to do the right thing if they know their work is being assessed and watched. At the same time greater forest transparency and accountability can provide confidence to investors in forest conservation (both industrialized country taxpayers and private capital) that their money is hitting its mark.

Imagine if we were able to provide regular independent report cards on forest health and governance in all the countries that will be recipients of the $3.5 billion climate forest fund? Such an approach is already starting to emerge. But we need to thread the pieces together and create an independent global forest monitoring network involving NGOs, research institutes and others, capable of integrating remote sensing information with locally collected information on forest health and governance. It must also include a well informed civil society at the local level capable of using the information to hold business and policy makers in their countries accountable for how they manage forests.

Then the lifeline thrown this week into Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) will have a real chance of improving the health of both the world’s forests and its climate.

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