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This is a joint posting with Dan Hammer.

The climate negotiations in Copenhagen have galvanized the climate evangelists and skeptics alike; the talks, some say, are merely a front to assuage the general public, and will only divert attention from the scientific imperative to curb global carbon emissions. But one benefit of the talks has already been realized: They have catalyzed a flurry of activity, especially in the domain of monitoring and evaluation. Last week in Copenhagen, Google.org announced that it will provide free access to raw satellite imagery to facilitate global monitoring of deforestation, which may account for 15% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, Google.org has partnered with two leading forest scientists to host their image-parsing algorithms online, so that experts in developing countries can produce more accurate maps of forest cover loss from satellite images.

The FORMA team at the Center for Global Development is looking forward to the release of this analysis platform, which will undoubtedly complement our own deforestation “alarm” system. We launched Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA) last month in a joint presentation on forest conservation strategies with the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) and the World Resources Institute (WRI). We designed FORMA to provide rapid identification of forest cover loss throughout the tropics. It is up and running with monthly updates of forest cover loss in Indonesia, which has one of the world’s largest deforestation problems. The final maps can be easily browsed in Google Maps and soon in Google Earth, with the output data available for download on our website.

To illustrate one aspect of FORMA’s capacity as a monitoring system, the graph below shows the proportion of standing forest as of 2000 that experienced heavy forest cover loss within the Rokan Hilir regency in Riau Province, Indonesia. The red line indicates cumulative forest loss, while the orange line indicates monthly deforestation. It is clear from this time-series that deforestation has continued apace since December 2005, the last month for which consistent measurements were available before we launched FORMA.

Once the Google.org platform is operational, it will immediately provide useful information for our system. FORMA is calibrated using the most recently-available high-resolution data on deforestation. Until now, the release of these data has been delayed by two factors: (1) the availability of the satellite images, which depend on the orbital frequency of remote-sensing satellites and the incidence of image-degrading cloud cover; (2) a ponderous peer-review process after the images are generated. Google’s platform will make new high-resolution images available immediately, allowing FORMA to jump past the outmoded peer-review process and provide monthly updates at an even higher standard of accuracy. This quick turnaround, coupled with our unwavering commitment to transparency and public disclosure, should enable FORMA to enhance the credibility of new conservation payment arrangements under UN-REDD -- the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries – and related programs.

Please visit our website (www.cgdev.org/forest) for more information, and be sure to watch the short introductory video on FORMA, narrated by our colleague Robin Kraft. And for the techies who read this: We should note that the FORMA workflow is exceptionally parallel, so that we can harness the power of cloud computing systems. With any luck, we’ll have the rest of the tropics processed and available for analysis within the next few months. Stay tuned!

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.