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My guests on this week’s Wonkcast are David Wheeler, senior fellow emeritus at CGD, and Nigel Sizer, director of the Global Forest Project at the World Resources Institute (WRI). They joined me after a presentation for CGD staff of Global Forest Watch 2.0, a real-time forest monitoring system that draws from David’s work on the Forest Monitoring for Action initiative (FORMA) here at CGD.

The ability to monitor the status of tropical forests worldwide could be a game-changer in efforts to slow and eventually halt forest clearing. Among the many benefits would be a reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.

“Forests are extremely significant when it comes to climate change,” Nigel explains. “Forest loss and degradation accounts for a significant percentage of global greenhouse emissions -- somewhere between 10 to 15 percent. So if we’re going to reduce emissions, clearly that’s one of the things we have to deal with.”

Global Forest Watch 2.0 uses improved satellite data and enhanced computing power to deliver regularly updated maps of tropical forests around the globe. “What we can do is bring that technology together and enable everyone around the world to have up-to-date, accurate picture of what’s happening to tropical forests,” Nigel explains.

David tells me he began constructing FORMA—the datasets and algorithms that underpin Global Forest Watch 2.0—several years ago when he realized that the available information on tropical forest clearing and degradation was scattered, inconsistent, unreliable and, most troubling for efforts to protect the forests, years out of date.

“I have always operated on the principal that the data is always out there somewhere, in either public or private hands, and the key to moving forward is to locate the information and then try to negotiate an arrangement with the proprietors to reveal the essence of that info that would be useful in a sector like forests,” David explains.

“In this case, there was a satellite dataset, but it had never been used in this way for this purpose, so we set about doing that.”

FORMA data also informs CGD’s Forest Conservation Performance Ratings -- a system of color-coded ratings for tropical forest conservation performance that can be implemented for local areas, countries, regions, and the entire pan-tropics.

The most recent ratings, published in a new CGD working paper by David, Dan Hammer and Robin Kraft, are quite alarming. Forest clearing continues to accelerate, and large scale logging is even occurring in officially protected areas in some of the world’s largest national parks.

I ask Nigel if Global Forest Watch 2.0—which delivers information from FORMA and other sources to a global network of governments, NGOs, and other actors concerned about forests—can put a dent in this disheartening trend.

“We are confident that Global Forest Watch 2.0 has the potential to be a game changer,” he says. “It fundamentally addresses a key component of governance—transparency—enabling people to communicate with each other around an agreed set of consistent information about what’s going on.”

Armed with this information, development agencies, governments, civil society, and others can shift their strategies and mobilize in different ways as the information becomes available, he explains.

The data could also be used to create pay for performance mechanisms, where rich countries or other donors financially reward developing countries for preserving their forests. David tells me that this could be done through an open offer to developing countries working to improve their performance on forests.

“The idea is that in each country you would establish a timeline toward very low forest clearing in some future date. Then over time you would watch progress toward that goal,” David explains. “You could provide financial rewards…There would be compensation to people who have suffered losses from holding their forests intact.”

We end the Wonkcast by discussing the role of the private sector in halting forest degradation. In response to consumer demand, large multinational corporations like Walmart and Nestle have recently pledged to reduce and eventually eliminate the sourcing of materials from land that was recently cleared of forests. Nigel tells me Global Forest Watch 2.0 can help hold these corporations accountable to their promises.

“We can help them measure what they’re doing and hold their feet to the fire,” he says.  “These are very measurable commitments. As time goes by we’ll be able to do a better job in seeing how they're doing.”

David tells me these pledges from the private sector could have a large and positive impact on forest conservation. As more and more private corporations begin implementing forest-friendly policies, they’ll push for their competitors around the world to be subject to similar constraints. “Others will pay careful attention because there will inevitably be political pressure for them to conform,” David says.

My thanks to Alex Gordon for editing the Wonkcast and providing a draft of this blog post.

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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.