Forests underpin life on Earth. Globally, around 2.4 billion people or one third of the entire human population depend directly on forests for wood for cooking their daily meals. And we all depend on forests in less tangible ways to provide the services that support life such as food, oxygen and pollination. Forested watersheds provide three quarters of accessible freshwater, and forests can provide 30% of the greenhouse gas mitigation required by 2030 to keep global warming to below 2%. We need to find sustainable ways to manage forests, more urgently than ever, to nurture rather than undermine the life-supporting services that forests provide and on which life on this planet depends - services that will play a key role in our resilience during and after the Covid-19 pandemic by supporting life and livelihoods in so many different ways.
But to do so in a targeted manner, we need to understand the status of our forests. In mid-May 2020, the Key Findings of the Global Forest Resources Assessment were published, quantifying the global trends in terms of forest extent and rates of loss. This enables us to gauge how effective efforts made so far have been, and how far we still have to go to secure forests and their ecosystem services for current and future generations.
A snapshot of the world’s forests
More than 30% of the world’s land area is covered by forests. However, since 1990, 178 million hectares of forest have been lost, which is an area roughly the size of Libya. Unfortunately, the assessment shows that regardless of efforts to halt deforestation, the world still continues to lose forest cover.
The picture of course differs from one continent to another. During this period, forest area has increased in some areas, whereas it has decreased in others, notably in Africa and South America. Africa alone has been losing almost 4 million hectares of forest, which is an area the size of the Netherlands, annually, during the last decade.
There are however some positive signs. The area of forest in protected areas has increased globally by 191 million hectares since 1990. Now 18 percent of the world's forests are located within protected areas, with almost one third of South American forests protected. That means that the world has met and surpassed, for forests, the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 to protect at least 17 percent of terrestrial area by 2020. Also, more than 2 billion hectares of forest globally have management plans.
While forest loss continues, the assessment has revealed that more of the remaining forests are now protected, or under management plans helping to ensure their sustainable use into the future.
And while globally forest loss continues, the rate of loss is slowing down. In South America, the rate of loss in the period 2010-2020 was half that of the decade before. Conversely, in Africa, which has the highest rate of loss, it has been accelerating in recent decades.
Some key findings include:
During the last decade forest area has increased in Asia, Oceania and Europe, while the highest rate of net forest losses was recorded in Africa, followed by South America.
Primary forests account for some 1.11 billion hectares - 81 million ha have been lost since 1990
The share of forests designated primarily for soil and water protection is increasing.
Most forest areas - 93 percent of the total - consist of naturally regenerating forests, while the remainder is planted
Seventy-three percent of the world’s forests is under public ownership -but the share of privately owned forests has increased since 1990
Total forest carbon stock is decreasing with declining forest area although the carbon stock density has slightly increased within the last three decades.
Data-driven forest actions for people and climate
With the growing population, worsening climate change and continued biodiversity loss, we need to utilize data and information to help us to secure a safe future for the planet and everyone on it, everywhere. Governments, for one, need to be able to make decisions based on evidence and facts.
Innovative tools and technologies can help us to gather more comprehensive, higher-quality data and share it more widely. Satellite imaging and other remote-sensing technology are of great help. Free access to vast digital archives of historical information and the ability to use these data to acquire information on forest cover in almost real time can boost the quality, transparency and timeliness of information.
The UN-REDD Programme has had a role to play through supporting innovative platforms such as Open Foris that enable measurements of countries’ forest extents as well as by strengthening countries capacities to monitoring their forests efficiently. By 2019, with the programme’s support, 40 countries developed national forest monitoring systems (NFMS) and 22 countries developed transparent national web portals for their NFMS. UN-REDD continues to be one of the leading initiatives to accompany its partner countries in using high quality data and tools to improve REDD+ reporting (Forest Reference Levels and REDD+ Technical Annexes), governance and advance national policy and institutional systems to safeguard forests and mitigate climate change.
Forest loss has indeed slowed down, but there is much work to do. The next decade will mark a pivotal moment in whether we achieve a sustainable future or not, when greenhouse gas emissions need to decline if we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. We need to increase ambitions for the role of forests in climate change mitigation and adaptation, and we need to bring to bear the collaborative weight and role of the UN as an innovative source of knowledge and support to countries.
The Key Findings of the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 (FRA 2020) have been released on 7 May 2020 together with an interactive publication called "A Fresh Perspective: Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020." The full FRA2020 report, with country data, will be released within the coming months.
Coordinator, REDD+/National Forest Monitoring Cluster
National Forest Monitoring Team Leader