Press Release

New Internet Tool Uses Satellite Data to Monitor Tropical Forests, Slow Global Warming

November 17, 2009

WASHINGTON,D.C.(November 11, 2009) -An online tool to monitor tropical rainforests, released today by the Center for Global Development (CGD), detects forest loss in areas as small as a square kilometer (about a third of a square mile), making it easy to know when and where forest destruction is occurring—and thus potentially intervene to stop its spread.

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The tool, called Forest Monitoring for Action or FORMA, processes data from NASA and other sources to produce detailed maps of deforestation hotspots that are updated each month as new satellite data become available.

The system has important implications for U.S. climate legislation and for the UN-sponsored climate talks in Copenhagen early next month. Payments from rich countries to developing countries to support forest preservation are being considered in both cases.

Ulla Tørnæs, Denmark’s minister for development cooperation, said in a recent speech that FORMA will complement a UN program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD). Among other things, the program aims to facilitate rich country payments to developing nations that conserve tropical forests as part of a climate agreement.

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“I feel confident that in Copenhagen we will pursue an effective, efficient and equitable deal on REDD,” Tørnæs said when FORMA was presented at the Civil Society Policy Forum at the World Bank-IMF annual meetings in Istanbul. “FORMA can make available information which is crucial for a proper financing mechanism under REDD.” The Danish government, host of the Copenhagen climate talks, provided financial support for CGD’s work on FORMA.

The FORMA prototype demonstrated in Washington today shows the spread of deforestation in Indonesia from 2000 to October 2009. A nation of 7,000 islands, Indonesia has one of the world’s largest remaining tropical forests. In monthly time-lapse images from December 2005 to October 2009, deforesting areas appear as cancer-like progressions of red dots. The prototype can be seen online at name

“FORMA will provide invaluable information to hard-pressed forestry authorities in developing countries,” said David Wheeler, a CGD senior fellow and FORMA’s chief architect. “And FORMA will make it easier for wealthy countries and developing countries to work together to preserve these irreplaceable treasures of biodiversity—and to keep billions of tons of carbon in the trees and out of the atmosphere.”

Forest destruction accounts for about 15% of carbon dioxide emissions, much of it in tropical forests in developing countries. Although rich countries are willing to pay for forest conservation in these countries, results must be monitored to ensure public support for payments that could reach billions of dollars annually. FORMA will contribute by providing up-to-date information about tropical forest destruction.

An open system freely available online, FORMA makes it possible to easily identify the monthly spread of deforestation at the local level. It complements national forest monitoring programs and will make possible new research on which forest preservation schemes work best in what circumstances. In future phases, FORMA will be extended to other tropical forest countries.

Mari Kuraishi, President of GlobalGiving Foundation, described the global opportunity offered by free public access to the new system: “FORMA opens a new frontier of peer-to-peer support for REDD: imagine individuals thousands of miles away supporting the protection of a microparcel of forest and monitoring the fate of that plot via FORMA.”

FORMA’s tropical forest monitoring can also be important for U.S. climate policy. Some U.S. policymakers view tropical rainforests in developing countries as the top candidates for proposed carbon offsets. In an offset program, U.S. law would allow big emitters to pay to conserve tropical rainforests in return for permission to emit the greenhouse gases that would be emitted if the forests were destroyed.

Such offsets are controversial: many developing countries oppose them, worrying that they will substitute for emissions cuts that must occur in rich countries to reduce the danger of sudden, rapid, and irreversible climate change. At the same time, there is widespread interest in the idea of paying people who live in and near tropical forests to protect them, instead of clearing the forests to raise livestock and crops.

“Payments for tropical forest preservation are an important part of the draft U.S. climate legislation and will almost certainly be part of a global climate deal,” said CGD president Nancy Birdsall. “FORMA makes it possible to apply the famous Russian proverb to the crucial process of forest conservation: trust, but verify.”

FORMA is the second Web-based monitoring tool built by David Wheeler and a small team of researchers at CGD. The first tool, Carbon Monitoring for Action, or CARMA (, reports CO2 emissions from 50,000 power plants worldwide, the companies that operate them, and the cities and countries where they are located.