Forest Degradation: An Overlooked GHG Source of Key Importance to SDGs 13 and 15
UN Photo/Eva Fendiaspara
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A Winrock International study shows that greenhouse gas emissions from forest degradation emissions are major contributors to climate change, equal to about a third of deforestation emissions and greater than emissions from international aviation, global shipping or US power generation.

Forest degradation represents the nexus of people living, working and using the forests in developing countries, yet is historically overlooked because it is difficult to systematically detect.

The study draws attention to the issue of forest degradation and the opportunities it presents to combat climate change (SDG 13), promote sustainable use of forests (SDG 15), and provide sustainable development among some of the most disadvantaged communities.

In February, Winrock scientists published a paper that detailed for the first time a consistent assessment of emissions from forest degradation across the tropics. Their findings show that the main human-led activities that lead to forest degradation, including selective timber harvest, fuelwood collection and forest fire, are major contributors to global emissions and climate change and exceed those from many other globally reported sources.

Forest degradation results from activities that damage the forest yet do not cause a complete loss of tree cover. It is intimately associated with many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations, those who lie at the heart of the mission of Winrock International. According to the World Bank, about one-fifth of the global population derives direct or indirect benefits from forests in the form of employment, forest products and contribution to livelihoods and incomes. As such, it is not an option to simply fence off forests. In direct line with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 (life on land), forests must be sustainably managed for resources, lives and livelihoods. If we better understand how forests are being degraded, we can intervene in ways that increase sustainability and mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while maintaining economic and social functions.

Detecting forest degradation is a significant challenge because subtle, incremental changes within forests are hard to monitor and assess. The satellite imagery currently used to track deforestation does not adequately pick up most forms of forest degradation, and the variation inherent in forest degradation activities have made a consistent, comprehensive analysis elusive. This lack of understanding has meant we are losing opportunities to combat climate change as urged by SDG 13.

Annual forest degradation emissions were estimated to be 2.1 billion tons of CO2 across 2.2 billion hectares of forest.

The study by Winrock scientists Pearson, Brown, Murray and Sidman seeks to contribute to filling this gap in knowledge and provides the first complete, consistent analysis of forest degradation across 74 tropical countries. The authors combined various approaches and datasets to develop an analysis that consistently estimates the magnitude and location of emissions from timber harvest, woodfuel extraction and forest fires.

Annual forest degradation emissions were estimated to be 2.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) across 2.2 billion hectares of forest. This number is larger than annual emissions from waste management (1.5 billion tons of CO2), international aviation (420 million tons of CO2) or US power generation (1.9 billion tons of CO2). In other words, forest degradation is a massive and often overlooked source of GHG. Knowing the magnitude of emissions and the location of emissions hotspots allows international donors or national governments to prioritize funding or plan interventions to combat climate change while improving sustainable land management and livelihoods.

Emissions resulting from timber harvest were found to be largest (53%) among the degradation activities examined, followed by woodfuel extraction (30%) and forest fires (17%). While countries with the largest forest expanses predictably had the greatest magnitude of emissions from degradation, differences emerged at the country and regional levels. In Indonesia and Brazil, which have the highest emissions, more than three-quarters of degradation emissions are from timber harvest, but in India and other countries dominated by drier forests, more than half of degradation emissions are from woodfuel harvest. Fire emissions are less significant, except in some African countries such as Angola, Chad, South Sudan and Zambia.

We hope that our paper draws attention to forest degradation as a source of GHG emissions and as an opportunity to mitigate climate change. Further scientific and policy attention are necessary to improve methods of detecting and monitoring forest degradation and to help country governments and donors focus on ways to make forests sustainable, economically viable and climate positive.

The article is open access and is available at this URL.

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