Skip to main content

Viet Nam: Bridging the past and the future of emission reductions

Blog | Gloria Pallares
Tue, 11 Dec, 2018 · 8 min read
The country adjusts its forest reference level to account for one-off reforestation efforts between 1995 and 2010

The country adjusts its forest reference level to account for one-off reforestation efforts between 1995 and 2010

In the second half of the 20th century, Viet Nam saw its forest cover shrink from 43 to 28 percent. Large swaths of forest were lost to defoliation or damaged by the expansion of agriculture, fires and illegal logging. Then came a series of breakthroughs.

A landmark 1998 decree established a goal of restoring the country’s forest cover by 2010 to the levels of the 1940s, through reforestation of three million hectares for timber production and two million for reserves. Nearly a decade later, Viet Nam went on to become one of the nine original national programmes to join the UN-REDD global initiative.

One of its objectives as a UN-REDD Partner Country was the construction of a forest reference (emission) level (FREL/FRL), which is a benchmark of the amount of greenhouse gases its forests had released into —or removed from— the atmosphere in the recent past. Reference levels are used to assess REDD+ performance, often in the context of results-based payments.

But what happens when efforts have set the bar so high that it is unlikely to be surpassed? This is precisely the issue Vietnamese experts had to address in the construction of its reference level for removals, according to Dr. Vu Tan Phuong, Director of the Department of Training and International Cooperation at the Vietnamese Academy of Forest Sciences.


The results of the large-scale reforestation programme that concluded in 2010 will be difficult to replicate in the coming years, both due to financial aspects and to the now reduced area for tree planting, notes the FREL/FRL document that Viet Nam submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2016.

The submission asserts that Viet Nam should not be penalized with a FREL/FRL that defines positive performance by surpassing such past efforts. As a result, the country proposed a downward adjustment of its reference level to reflect this expected deviation from historical data, says Dr. Vu Tan Phuong.

This adjustment was made based on studies conducted to assess the success rate of plantations under the reforestation programmes. These studies will also allow for more accurate adjustment in future resubmissions of the reference level.

“The classification of 12 different forest types, the availability of satellite data and assessing the accuracy of data on historical changes in forest cover and land cover were other challenges we faced in constructing the FREL/FRL,” says Dr. Vu Tan Phuong. Unlike other countries, Viet Nam has been producing forest cover maps since 1991 and has an abundance of data on how the landscape has changed. But as well as enriching the information available for reference level construction, this also raises new issues to be addressed.

The source of satellite images used to create the various maps changed over time, and so did the very notion of what a forest is. “Viet Nam has made efforts to harmonize these maps, making them compatible and consistent over time by applying the same forest definition and a harmonized forest classification system,” notes the FREL/FRL submission. And this effort, which will continue into the future, has been worth it.

“The process of developing the FREL/FRL has helped us build our technical capacity to meet international standards and to better coordinate our ministries and agencies,” says Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy, Deputy Director of the National Steering Committee Office for the Target Programme on Sustainable Forest Development and REDD+ Implementation.

Viet Nam: Bridging the past and the future of emission reductions


Viet Nam’s FREL/FRL includes all GHG fluxes from forests through– deforestation, forest degradation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. For experts involved in the FREL/FRL submission, the inclusion of all these fluxes matters because it reduces the risk that displaced emissions are not accounted, for example, if restoration of an area of forest leads to deforestation of another one, instead.

The country has gone a long way since it joined the UN-REDD Programme, and it now plans to measure and report the results of REDD+ implementation to be able to access results-based payments.

“REDD+ is a good match for our strategy for climate change mitigation, sustainable development and forest protection, which includes payments for ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration,” says Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy. From her perspective, the next few years will bring even more opportunities to further integrate climate, development and environmental goals for a more sustainable future for her country.