The photograph on the left was taken by Global Witness in 2006. It shows an area of illegal logging inside the Bokum Sakor National Park in Cambodia. Here’s the problem: What area should be delineated as forest? You might think that’s easy. The area covered in trees is forest. Isn’t it? Yes, obviously. But according to the UNFCCC’s definition of forests, the logged over area is also forest.
The UN describes this sort of destruction as “areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily unstocked as a result of human intervention”. In the looking glass world of the UNFCCC, then, a clearcut is a forest. And a monoculture eucalyptus plantation is also a forest.
A recent report in Conservation Letters focusses on the weak definitions of “forest” and “forest degradation” in the global climate change agreements.
The authors, Nophea Sasaki (of Harvard University and the University of Hyogo) and Francis Putz (of the University of Florida) argue that under the current definitions, “great quantities of carbon and other environmental values will be lost when natural forests are severely degraded or replaced by plantations but technically remain ‘forests.'”
They explain that their concern is that “while forest degradation is recognized as a major problem, it is mostly being disregarded by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) partially because of the way they define ‘forest’.”
Below are the current definitions of “forest”, “deforestation”, “forest management”, “reforestation” and “afforestation” as agreed under the UNFCCC. (Source: Annex to decision 16/CMP.1, Land use, land-use change and forestry.) “Forest degradation” is not included, for the simple reason that there is no agreed definition. “Lack of a universally agreed-upon definition of forest degradation will cause complications when REDD projects are implemented,” Sasaki and Putz note, with academic understatement.
“Negotiations on this agreement are scheduled to be completed by December 2009, which means that discussions about the broader issue of defining forests and debates over the inclusion of forest degradation need to be resolved very soon,” Sasaki and Putz write. As REDD-Monitor has previously pointed out, the way that forests are defined is crucial to whether REDD helps preserve or destroy forests. Without a definition of forests that differentiates between forests and industrial tree plantations, REDD will spell disaster.
“Forest” is a minimum area of land of 0.05–1.0 hectare with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10–30 per cent with trees with the potential to reach a minimum height of 2–5 metres at maturity in situ. A forest may consist either of closed forest formations where trees of various storeys and undergrowth cover a high proportion of the ground or open forest. Young natural stands and all plantations which have yet to reach a crown density of 10–30 per cent or tree height of 2–5 metres are included under forest, as are areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily unstocked as a result of human intervention such as harvesting or natural causes, but which are expected to revert to forest.
“Deforestation” is the direct human-induced conversion of forested land to non-forested land.
“Forest management” is a system of practices for stewardship and use of forest land aimed at fulfilling relevant ecological (including biological diversity), economic and social functions of the forest in a sustainable manner.
“Reforestation” is the direct human-induced conversion of non-forested land to forested land through planting, seeding and/or the human-induced promotion of natural seed sources, on land that was forested but that has been converted to non-forested land. For the first commitment period, reforestation activities will be limited to reforestation occurring on those lands that did not contain forest on 31 December 1989.
“Afforestation” is the direct human-induced conversion of land that has not been forested for a period of at least 50 years to forested land through planting, seeding and/or the human-induced promotion of natural seed sources.
The Abstract to Sasaki and Putz’ paper, “Critical need for new definitions of ‘forest’ and ‘forest degradation’ in global climate change agreements” follows, and the paper is available here (pdf file, 134.8 KB):
If global policies intended to promote forest conservation continue to use the definition of “forest” adopted in 2001 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (an area of >0.05–1 ha with >10–30% cover of plants >2–5 m tall at maturity), great quantities of carbon and other environmental values will be lost when natural forests are severely degraded or replaced by plantations but technically remain “forests.” While a definition of “forest” that is globally acceptable and appropriate for monitoring using standard remote sensing options will necessarily be based on a small set of easily measured parameters, there are dangers when simple definitions are applied locally. At the very least, we recommend that natural forest be differentiated from plantations and that for defining “forest” the lower height limit defining “trees” be set at more than 5 m tall with the minimum cover of trees be set at more than 40%. These changes will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from what is now termed forest “degradation” without increasing monitoring costs. Furthermore, these minor changes in the definition of “forest” will promote the switch from degradation to responsible forest management, which will help mitigate global warming while protecting biodiversity and contributing to sustainable development.