Thirty-four countries have submitted 38 Forest Reference Emission Levels/Forest Reference Levels to the UNFCCC for technical assessment representing 1.4 billion hectares of forest, 36% of global forest area, and 66% of global forest loss, as per figures reported in the FAO 2015 Global Forest Resources Assessment.
In addition to this, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Malaysia have reported REDD+ results to the UNFCCC through five REDD+ results submissions, totaling more than 6 billion tonnes of CO2e in emission reductions, mostly from reduced deforestation in Amazon countries (Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador).
The progress in REDD+ MRV and the associated National Forest Monitoring Systems suggest a transformation in national forest monitoring capacity, which is enabling forest data collection, analysis, and generation of national maps and statistics like never before.
Improvements in the accuracy and transparency of NFMS can be achieved by maintaining support, enhancing existing capacities, and encouraging countries to improve their data and methods.
Harnessing the potential for climate action (SDG 13) offered by forests through protection, restoration, and sustainable management (SDG 15) has been constrained by the challenge of measuring and reporting emission reductions or enhancements accurately. In 2013, the Warsaw Framework on REDD+ under the UNFCCC completed REDD+ decisions related to requirements for measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of emission reductions or enhancements from forests. How far have countries progressed in the five years since 2013? Where are the remaining gaps and how can we maintain and enhance progress? National Forest Monitoring Systems (NFMS) that generate accurate and transparent forest information for national decision making and international MRV reporting for REDD+ can create a win-win for forests and climate action.
A recent Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) publication titled, ‘From Reference Levels to Results Reporting: REDD+ under the UNFCCC: 2018 Update,’ provides an indication of significant progress in countries’ ability to measure and report emission reductions or enhancements. Thirty-four countries have submitted 38 Forest Reference Emission Levels/Forest Reference Levels (FREL/FRLs) to the UNFCCC for technical assessment representing 1.4 billion hectares of forest, 36% of global forest area, and 66% of global forest loss, as per figures reported in the FAO 2015 Global Forest Resources Assessment. FREL/FRLs are forest emission benchmarks against which emission reductions or enhancements can be measured, and the first step in the process of reporting REDD+ forest climate actions to the UNFCCC. In addition to this, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Malaysia have reported REDD+ results to the UNFCCC through five REDD+ results submissions, totaling more than 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in emission reductions, mostly from reduced deforestation in Amazon countries (Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador). Both FREL/FRL and REDD+ results undergo Technical Assessment and Technical Analysis respectively under the REDD+ MRV modalities of the UNFCCC. FAO is proud to have supported 70% of REDD+ MRV submissions to the UNFCCC through different programmes and projects such as UN-REDD. This is a significant climate mitigation action from reduced deforestation and in emission volume exceeds the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the US.
The forest data and information fueling this momentum on REDD+ reporting is coming from NFMS. For over 50 years FAO has been supporting member countries on national forest monitoring with the overriding motivation that better information leads to better decisions, which leads to better actions in the forest sector and beyond. The Voluntary Guidelines for National Forest Monitoring and a new publication titled, ‘Strengthening National Forest Monitoring Systems for REDD+,’ provide guidance and examples on how countries can build multi-purpose NFMS that generate forest information to support both national decision-making processes and international reporting for REDD+.
The progress in REDD+ MRV and the associated NFMS suggest a transformation in national forest monitoring capacity, which is enabling forest data collection, analysis, and generation of national maps and statistics like never before. Through sound data and information, countries are understanding the contribution of their forest protection, restoration, and sustainable management efforts under SDG 15 and to climate action under SDG 13. There are indications that advances in forest monitoring are reaching far beyond REDD+, and are enabling evidence-based land management, evidence-based policy development, and ultimately emission reductions or enhancements on the ground. Where many countries were once “blind” they now see their forests and have a better understanding of what is changing them and what needs to be done to protect, restore, and manage them.
Remaining Gaps and Ways to Sustain Momentum
In light of this progress, where are the remaining gaps and how can existing momentum for forest monitoring be sustained?
Despite the advances in country data and capacity, there remains a gap between current NFMS and the accuracy and transparency expected by donors for payment of REDD+ results. This is apparent with a comparison of current FREL/FRLs and the Green Climate Fund (GCF) REDD+ Results-based Payments Pilot. Improvements in the accuracy and transparency of NFMS can be achieved by maintaining support, enhancing existing capacities, and encouraging countries to improve their data and methods. Continuous improvement, building on existing systems, national capabilities, and capacities, was as the core of the NFMS concept under the UNFCCC.
Institutional and financial barriers threaten the sustainability of NFMS. Underfunded government institutions with limited human resources and fragile technical capacity threaten the recent gains. This threat can be ameliorated with targeted investments in forest data collection, and improved methodology with the accompanying institutional capacity development, for sustainable NFMS that leverage both national budgets and international support. Although some countries are absorbing NFMS funding needs into national budget allocations, most countries still require international support for maintaining NFMS and for the continuous improvement required for accurate and transparent forest information.
NFMS support providers such as FAO need to innovate and identify ways to fast-track technical capacity development and improve the efficiency of technology transfer. Examples of innovation are Open Foris and SEPAL (System for earth observation, data access, processing, analysis for land monitoring) – open-source software conceived to meet the urgent need for innovative systems that enable accurate, efficient, and cost-effective forest measurement and reporting. Open Foris is enabling rapid technology transfer to partner countries allowing them to do the work themselves. Support providers also need to encourage cost-effective knowledge sharing among countries through South-South cooperation. Countries have progressed their NFMS, and enabling mutual exchange and learning can be beneficial.
The Way Forward
Recent publications provide a basis for better understanding progress in national forest monitoring but there is more to do. There is ongoing work at FAO to build a unique dataset to measure progress in national forest monitoring capacity development across 16 tropical developing countries over the last ten years to understand in more detail the progress and the remaining gaps. Better understanding of what has (or has not) been achieved could help direct resources strategically towards filling the remaining capacity gaps, and build confidence in the potential of REDD+ to bridge SDG 13 and SDG 15.
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This article was authored by Julian Fox, Team Leader National Forest Monitoring, Forestry Department, FAO