The 19th largest country in the world turns to sustainable forest management to make boreal forests work for people and the planet
Mongolia is unlike any other UN-REDD partner country. It is the only boreal forest nation to have joined the UN-REDD Programme, and has permafrost dating from the last Ice Age, litter accumulated over decades, and temperature ranges spanning up to 100ºC. Landlocked between Russia and China, it is also the 19th largest country on earth.
Best known for its steppes and nomadic herders, Mongolia is considered a forest-poor country. At more than 16 million hectares, though, its forests are roughly the size of Nepal and are part of the world’s largest land-based carbon sink, stretching across the Northern Hemisphere. Boreal forests dominated by birch and larch cover 14.2 million hectares (including open forest land), and saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron), a desert woodland ecosystem, another 2 million.
“We sometimes travel by horse for weeks and gather data on forests that are 100 kilometres away from human settlements. Places so untouched, not even local people know how to get there, or remember the last time someone did,” says Bat-Ulzii Chultem, Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist with the UN-REDD Mongolia National Programme.
Bat-Ulzii is part of the team that has developed the country’s forest reference level (FRL), a benchmark to assess REDD+ performance, often in the context of results-based payments. Mongolia constructed its national reference level with data from the period dating from 2005-2015 and submitted it to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) in January 2018.
The country went on to resubmit a more refined version in June, but the journey is far from over. As part of a stepwise approach, it aims to improve the accuracy and coverage of its reference level over time through use of better data and methodologies.
Mongolia’s unique circumstances pose equally unique challenges in building the FRL, but Bat-Ulzii believes the whole process is yielding crucial insights that are set to provide benefits well beyond REDD+.
The first challenge Mongolia faced when calculating its reference level was its sheer size and limited technical capacity, compounded with the scarcity of country-specific data —for example, to calculate emission factors— and the need to adapt the existing information to international standards. “It took the better part of the national experts on forestry and related disciplines to construct the FRL,” notes Bat-Ulzii.
On top of that, there is a permafrost layer that likely stores huge amounts of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, but whose total size and location are unknown; and the data gap on peatlands, which are thought to be another major carbon sink. “Because of this, in Mongolia we have chosen not to consider soil organic carbon in the current reference level, but we hope to be able to include it in the future, alongside data on saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron) forests.”
Another complex issue is the cause of forest cover loss, which in Mongolia is usually caused by deforestation through continued degradation. As explained in the FRL submission, forest cover loss results from “the long-term, compounded effect of fires and pest damage, often triggered by unsustainable logging and exacerbated by uncontrolled grazing and recurrent burning.” So, it is often a combination of factors, rather than a single, major one, that causes forests to ultimately turn into steppe.
Mongolian forests have been shown to be relatively untouched by human activities —to the surprise of national forestry experts. “Upon conducting our first analysis of the historical change in forest cover [for the FRL and other purposes], we realized that our forests are in a much better shape that we previously thought, but also that they are still vulnerable,” says Bat-Ulzii.
“Unlike tropical forests, boreal ones only have a handful of species; have low productivity and growth; and can easily lose their ecological balance when disturbed,” he says. This makes them less adaptable to climate change —all the more serious given that, over the past two decades, temperatures have been rising at three times the average annual global rate. In addition, higher temperatures increase the risk of pest outbreaks and fires, feeding into the ‘deforestation-through-continued-degradation’ cycle.
During the construction of the reference level, national experts came to another realization: most Mongolian forests have reached the limit of their natural growth potential, while the demand for timber and the urgency to mitigate and adapt to climate change keep increasing.
“We now see sustainable forest management, with practices such as improved thinning and harvesting regimes, as a means of enhancing the carbon storage and the resilience of ecosystems,” points out the specialist. “And all of this creates business opportunities, raises awareness on the role of forests, and enhances the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities.”
While Mongolia is unlike other UN-REDD partner countries in many ways, Bat-Ulzii believes they all share a common vision: that of healthier forests for people and for the planet.
 The Saxaul Forest is shrubby species growing in semi-arid steppe land and considered as other wooded land in Mongolia. Saxaul forest plays vital role in the region, specially for biodiversity and protecting soil from wind erosion.
Freelance Journalist for the UN-REDD Programme