Skip to main content

Towards accurate, open and transparent forest data

Blog | Julian Christian Fox
Wed, 09 Sep, 2020 · 10 min read
Towards accurate, open and transparent forest data

A key pillar of the Paris Agreement is the Enhanced Transparency Framework which aims to raise ambitions for climate action through transparent country reporting. For forests, open and transparent data has enabled forest and climate action under REDD+ through the development of National Forest Monitoring Systems (NFMS). In light of the climate emergency, it is time to scale up efforts toward accurate, open and transparent forest data, to catalyse higher ambitions under REDD+ and the Paris Agreement.

A multi-purpose NFMS can provide transparent, reliable, relevant, accessible and sustainable forest data as articulated in FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines for National Forest Monitoring. The UN-REDD Programme has supported 45 countries in developing NFMS though capacity development and technology transfer. This has catalysed progress for REDD+ Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV) under the UNFCCC, with 50 countries having operationalised their NFMS for the provision of data for submission of Forest Reference Emission Levels / Forest Reference Levels (FREL/FRLs). Both an NFMS and a FREL/FRL are requirements under the Warsaw Framework for REDD+. The fact that 50 forested countries have developed NFMS and are submitting detailed technical reports for external review under the UNFCCC is a major step forward for forest and climate action.

The 50 countries that have completed the MRV elements of the Warsaw Framework represent 75% of global deforestation, according to FAO’s 2020 Global Forest Resources Assessment. For many countries, this is the first time detailed forest data has been reported internationally, and it represents a major step forward toward transparent forest data, while also laying the groundwork for the transition to the Enhanced Transparency Framework of the Paris Agreement. As of mid-2020, 12 countries have reported emission reductions or enhancements to the UNFCCC through their REDD+ technical Annex, representing 8.87 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is an important contribution to climate change mitigation and is enabling the flow of results-based finance from the Green Climate Fund, which, in turn, is triggering accelerated forest and climate action. However, there is much left to do to improve the accuracy and transparency of forest data to further raise actions and ambitions for forests and climate.

Over the last five years, there has been steady improvements in the quality and integrity of REDD+ submissions to the UNFCCC. Eight countries have submitted more than one FREL/FRL and have introduced improvements in their later submissions. Methodologies are becoming more robust, with more accurate, sample-based approaches gaining ground in recent submissions. A full analysis of progress for REDD+ reporting to the UNFCCC will be available in the forthcoming publication: “From reference levels to results reporting: REDD+ under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: 2020 update.”

Despite this progress, we need to further reduce uncertainties, improve accuracy and ensure the integrity of emission reductions and enhancements. This is integral to the credibility of the entire REDD+ process. To accelerate these actions, FAO joined forces with the World Bank’s Carbon Fund in early 2020 to identify and fill gaps in current forest monitoring systems and capacities and to work towards unlocking results-based finance for carbon emission reductions through the World Bank’s Carbon and BioCarbon Funds.

In combination with targeted capacity development, a catalyst for advancing NFMS has been the Open Foris set of tools that has helped more than 30,000 people across 180 countries collect, analyse and report forest data. The last five years has been an exciting time for technology and innovation in forest monitoring, and much of the progress has been catalysed through collaboration and partnerships between people and institutions, countries, space agencies such as NASA, JAXA, and other partners such as Planet Labs and Google.

A multi-purpose NFMS can provide transparent, reliable, relevant, accessible and sustainable forest data. However, there is a need to strengthen elements of NFMS, particularly as they relate to legal frameworks, institutional arrangements, open data polices and linkages between NFMS and decision- and policy-making. Two forthcoming publications provide case studies and recommendations on these aspects: “Legal frameworks for sustainable National Forest Monitoring Systems” and “Better data, better decisions – Towards impactful forest monitoring.” FAO is working hard to make forest data more open and transparent with efforts such as the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020. This provides country-validated forest data, accessible through an interactive platform and dashboards. The Hand-in-Hand geospatial platform launched recently by FAO’s Director General represents a major step towards accessible, transparent, cross-sectoral, geospatial data across the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. A new FAO project, called Building global capacity to increase transparency in the forest sector (CBIT-Forest), is working to establish a Global Field Forest Observation Repository with a view to harmonizing legal assurances in data confidentiality, redistribution policies and quality assurance conditions, all of which would meet international data documentation protocols.

Progress under NFMS is a key contribution to the forest data provision in the Enhanced Transparency Framework of the Paris Agreement. Progress for NFMS has also catalysed action on monitoring other key landscapes, such as peatlands, and is providing the foundation for monitoring efforts under the United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration. NFMS are also being used by countries to monitor their forests during the COVID-19 pandemic and for the formulation of data-driven plans to build back better.

A key global instrument in advancing coordination in forest monitoring has been the Global Forests Observation Initiative (GFOI), and the recently launched Methods and Guidance Document Version 3 and REDDcompass are both excellent resources for countries as they continue to strengthen their NFMS.

Despite all of this progress, there is an urgent need to advance accurate, open and transparent forest data to raise actions and ambitions for forest and climate. This is fundamental to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.