The destruction of forests for short-term economic gain is perhaps the most visible sign of humans’ contribution to climate change. We must reassess forests’ value, harnessing technology to reverse the damage we have wrought.
Forests are unique assets. Like humans’ collective knowledge, they do not depreciate over time. In fact, the classical definition of an economic asset applies to forests: a resource with value for a corporation or an individual, or something that can provide current and future benefits. However, it is the nature of these current and future benefits – their richness and irreplaceability – that makes forests unique and challenging to quantify using the standard economic toolkit.
If an asset is a resource with value, then what does value mean in the context of forests? Forests are usually cut for logging and burned down to make room for agriculture. Lost in these uses are the constellation of carbon and non-carbon benefits that forests provide. The value of a forest goes well beyond its value as a stream of income from logging or agricultural conversion. It is a tremendous loss for a fraction of the benefits. Cutting forests as we do today is like selling Google for the value of its data centres.
Contributions to climate change
Forests are key to attaining climate change mitigation goals by 2030. UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2017 tells us that current targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly fail to match the severity of the climate crisis. Even with tremendous political will, a world powered by renewable energy will not materialise overnight. We have a long way to go.
How can we facilitate the transition? An important part of the answer lies in forest ecosystems. Reducing emissions and removing massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere through halting forest loss and restoring forests have a mitigation potential of around 5.3 GtCO2e/year by 2030 – almost a quarter of the estimated emissions reductions required to get on to a 1.5°C target pathway. This figure could double if afforestation, agroforestry and carbon sequestration in soils were taken into account.
Forests are under threat because of our failure as a society to reflect their true value in our daily decisions. Last year, we lost 3.6 million hectares of pristine tropical forests, the size of Belgium. This figure increases threefold if we include both primary (untouched by humankind) and secondary (already disturbed or logged) forests.
So, what technologies do we have to help correct the situation?
Remote sensing technology for forest monitoring
The capacity to remotely monitor land use change has undergone nothing less than a revolution in the past 10 years. When the UN-REDD Programme started supporting countries in establishing forest monitoring systems, observers could only identify forests. Now, with advances in remote sensing technology, individual trees can be seen. And with the cost of remote sensing technology falling, this high-resolution monitoring is becoming the new normal.
The advances in remote sensing have now gone beyond measuring land use changes to also including carbon content. Today, the combination of LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technologies and satellite imagery can produce 3D carbon maps showing the amount of carbon above soil. Soon, it will be possible to compare nationwide 3D images of above-soil carbon to estimate net carbon gains and losses over time. Together with images of forest cover and adding the price of forest carbon, you could rapidly estimate REDD+ payments not only from avoided deforestation, but also from forest restoration and enhancement of carbon stocks.
Advances in satellite imagery have occurred simultaneously with advances in drone technology. The availability of improved batteries and lighter materials has made drones affordable and available to the wider public. They have been rapidly put to good use for forest monitoring and management. Drone equipment and software exists that can scan forests, identify which trees are best placed for selective logging and automatically calculate expected volume. Because the handling of equipment and software does not require highly specialised knowledge, it facilitates the management of forests in situations where forestry professionals are in short supply. For example, the UN-REDD Programme has provided equipment and training to indigenous communities that are now able to monitor and manage large tracts of their ancestral forest areas with the help of drone technology.
Remote early fire detection systems
Advances in remote sensing and drone technology have, in turn, permitted corresponding advances in early fire detection systems. This is important because climate change is making forests more vulnerable to fires. Systems under development now include networks of infrared cameras and heat sensors that can spot wildfires before they become too difficult to control. These can be connected to command centres that also receive data from satellite imagery. Drones can be deployed to accurately assess the extent and position of forest fires and plan responses accordingly. Some of these systems can automatically trigger response actions, like the deployment of fire brigades and hydrant planes.
Technology for tracing logging products has been in use for some time, but its penetration is low. The most common approach is to assign barcodes to each log. However, barcodes open possibilities for tampering, and therefore allow illegal logging products to mix with legal ones. So, why not use the equivalent of a tree fingerprint? There is now scanning technology that can identify the unique pattern of tree rings and track movement from the moment a tree is cut down all the way to its final use.
Participatory landscape management
This is one of the most cost-effective technologies for forest conservation and sustainable use. Most forests under threat comprise a mosaic of ownership and uses. This requires stakeholders to come together to decide on land management options in a collaborative way to accommodate for activities like preserving protected areas, maintaining biological corridors, allowing forest extraction, agriculture and tourism, among others. In this context, gender based access to forest right, ownership and decision-making should also be considered – a major area of expertise at CTCN.
Participatory landscape management, when done well, is more of an art than a technique. While it may not seem as exciting as drone or remote sensing technology, it provides the foundation to make these technologies effective. This is an important lesson: successful conservation and sustainable forest management will for the foreseeable future continue to depend on ‘soft’ actions, like reaching consensus on resource use and an equitable distribution of its benefits.
Susan C Gardner, Director, Ecosystems Division
UN Environment Programme (UNEP)