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Forest clearing is an enormous source of global warming, contributing about 15% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Most clearing occurs in developing countries that have limited resources and regulatory capacity. Since these countries also focus on poverty alleviation, their support for forest conservation will be weak as long as forested land has a higher market value in other uses. Under these conditions, many proprietors will continue clearing their forested land unless they are given conservation payments that match or exceed the opportunity cost of the land. This economic insight has led the UN to establish UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), a program that helps countries prepare for an eventual direct compensation scheme for forest conservation.
The first prototype for REDD operations is the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), launched at the UN’s Bali conference on climate change in December, 2007. Target capitalization for this prototype facility is over $300 million. However, the UNFCCC estimates that full conservation of remaining forests in the tropics and subtropics will require $12.2 billion annually. A compact negotiated this year in Copenhagen may support an expansion of UN-REDD to this scale, because carbon emissions abatement from forest conservation is much lower-cost than abating emissions from fossil fuels (Stern, 2006). The UNFCCC’s estimate of CO2 emissions from forest-burning (5.8 Gt) implies an average abatement cost of only $2.10/tonne (at an annual payment of $12.2 billion).
Sustained international support for such enormous payment flows will hinge on the operational credibility of REDD programs. For accountability, the global community will need access to a monitoring system that provides detailed, accurate and timely identification of deforestation in conservation-payment areas. To ensure the broadest access and credibility, the monitoring system should use transparent methods to filter publicly-available data for accurate deforestation signals. Its outputs should be made freely available online.
To assist the international community in meeting this challenge, CGD is building and testing a prototype system called FORMA (Forest Monitoring for Action). Financial support for our project has been provided by the Government of Denmark. FORMA utilizes data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), which operates on NASA’s Terra and Aqua (EOS PM) satellites. Although its data-processing techniques are relatively complex, FORMA is based on a common-sense observation: Tropical deforestation involves the burning of biomass and a pronounced change in vegetation color, as the original forest is cleared and replaced by pastures, croplands or plantations. Accordingly, FORMA constructs deforestation indicators from MODIS information on the incidence of fires and changes in vegetation color. Then it calibrates to local deforestation by fitting a statistical model that relates the MODIS-based indicator values to the best available information on actual deforestation in each area.