More than ever, governments, companies and civil society organizations are committing to ambitious goals to protect the world’s remaining forests and combat emissions from deforestation. Political commitments to reduce deforestation include the Sustainable Development Goals, the New York Declaration on Forests, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, UN Convention on Climate Change decisions on REDD+ and hundreds of corporate commitments for deforestation free supply chains.

This is good progress, but how can we move beyond commitments to global action for forests? And what benchmark should we use to monitor progress?

Around the world, forest data are collected at different scales for different reasons; such as for national forest inventories, ecological research and land use planning. But these data are often collected using different methods, are not accessible to the public, or are scattered across different formats making them hard to aggregate and compare. This causes significant misunderstandings, and can also undermine progress. Consider the discussions on benchmarks, usually expressed as the annual rate of deforestation or emissions from deforestation. These negotiations can become so complex and nuanced that they serve to keep out all but a very small group of experts.

Global Forest Watch helps build the movement towards open data and decision-relevant information on the assumption that improved transparency and access to information leads to better forest management. The new Global Forest Watch Climate platform, launched today, brings new data and analytical tools that widen access to useful information data around greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation and its effects on global climate change.

Here are five recommendations for monitoring progress on these commitments through GFW Climate:

Focus on the Tropics

Several recent articles have highlighted substantial differences between global forest change data sets, stressing the need for improved and consolidated international statistics on forest changes. There are many reasons for these differences, including various definitions of key terms like “forest” and “deforestation.”

Most definitions of deforestation involve converting natural forest to a new land use, most often in the tropics as forests are converted for agricultural commodities production. Tropical countries therefore also have the most to contribute towards deforestation reduction. Let’s start there.

Focus on Greenhouse Gases, Not Area of Land

Concern about climate change is a primary motivator for many of the deforestation commitments made to date. However, when it comes to climate, focusing only on the area of deforestation (as measured in hectares or square miles) ignores the fact that different forests can release vastly different quantities of greenhouse gases upon clearing. For example, converting tropical peat swamp forest in Indonesia to oil palm causes emissions from the cleared vegetation, emissions from burning peat to clear the land before planting, and emissions from continuous peat oxidation once drained for agriculture. Hectare for hectare and acre for acre, clearing these landscapes is much worse for the climate than clearing other degraded lands that store less carbon.

GFW Climate’s strategic focus on greenhouse gas emissions, rather than just the area of deforestation, will help prioritize interventions for some of the world’s most carbon-dense and often ecologically valuable forests, ensuring that reductions in forest loss result in gains for the climate.

Focus on Trends

“One point does not a trend make”. Data from individual years provides a snapshot that can tell an incomplete or even incorrect story. With monitoring systems that track deforestation consistently year after year, trends in gross deforestation and differences among countries are easier to monitor, regardless of the data source.

In a new analysis in Global Change Biology, we used GFW Climate data to set a pantropical deforestation emissions benchmark of 2.27 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year against which to measure global progress towards deforestation emission reductions. The analysis also shows that despite substantial emissions reductions in Brazil since 2004, these have been largely offset by significant increases in deforestation from other tropical countries, both those that signed the New York Declaration on Forests as well as those that did not. GFW Climate provides a visualization of these trends.

Focus on Improving Data Over Time

Science and technology continue to improve at an astounding pace; the “best” data today will certainly not be the best data ten or even three years from now. Ideally, every country will develop a forest monitoring system that yields transparent, complete, accurate and consistent data capable of tracking all land use transitions and their associated greenhouse gas emissions and removals.

Brazil currently leads the way. Since 1988 the Brazilian Space Agency (INPE) has monitored deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon on an annual basis, with results that are widely reported and recognized as credible and transparent. Many other countries such as Guyana, Colombia and Ecuador have invested in, or are developing, forest monitoring programs and are making great strides. Data from these country-led efforts are included on the country profile pages of GFW Climate, and more will be added as they emerge.

Advanced monitoring systems take time and resources to establish, and national circumstances will dictate the details of each system. In the meantime, globally consistent data sets such as University of Maryland’s tree cover change data and Woods Hole Research Center’s new 30 m tropical forest biomass map on GFW Climate will help monitor collective progress, guide improved data collection and focus resources towards more effective interventions.

Focus on Now

Perhaps the forest monitoring community should adopt the credo of American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson: “For me, I am driven by two main philosophies; know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.”

We will continue to know more about forests than we do today as monitoring programs improve across the world, both on the ground and through advances in remote sensing technology. But the more time we spend citing lack of consensus on data or methods as a reason not to act, the more human suffering will be caused by the effects of climate change, particularly in regions least equipped to adapt. Elevating public awareness of tropical deforestation’s effects on the atmosphere through tools like GFW Climate can help change the status quo.

Climate change does not follow national borders. To the extent that emissions from deforestation represent the largest and most immediate opportunity for climate change mitigation in the land use sector, it is in our collective interest to support tropical forest countries in their transition away from a dependence on natural resource depletion towards the preservation of forest landscapes. You’d be surprised how far that gets us.

Read more about how to use GFW Climate to measure emissions from tropical deforestation on our blog.