Know Thy Forests – Technical Barriers to Reducing Emissions from Forests

In the upcoming weeks, my colleagues and I will be blogging about the sector and country level insights we have drawn from our eight month study of the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) and agriculture sectors.  Our research has helped us develop a deep understanding of the potential for reducing GHG emissions from the LULUCF and agriculture sectors through low cost – high return mitigation and abatement strategies.  We have also become more appreciative of the enormous challenges of overcoming technical, institutional, market, cultural, political barriers in order to implement these mitigation and abatement strategies. 

This first blog will broadly discuss the technical barriers to implementing mitigation practices in forestry. Why? Because forest loss accounts for up to 20% of global carbon emissions — more than all the cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships in the world. And because most international organizations and non-profits cite the lack of technical capacity as the biggest problem in reducing emissions from Land Use Change and Forestry (LUCF). Simply put, if you don’t have the capacity to estimate ‘how much’ forests you have, ‘how quickly’ they are undergoing change, and monitor ‘what effect’ mitigation efforts will have, you have no basis to invest any capital or political will into doing something about it.

Most developing countries which are home to large ‘sinks’ of forests lack the ability to generate critical information required for implementing mitigation strategies. Without this information, it becomes very difficult to adapt international research to the national, sub-national and local level. These technical barriers are much more pronounced in the forestry sector than the other emissions producing sectors as the mitigation measures and management systems are often specific to a particular forest type or economy. As a result, without good baseline data, there is little chance a country can replicate successful mitigation strategies, even if it has the money and the institutional structure to do so.

Next is the much talked about issue of Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (MRV). MRV are important elements in gaining the credibility needed to capture the potential benefits of the forestry sector.  Monitoring involves measuring country progress from theoretically established mitigation baselines. Reporting can flow through either the national government, or independent review to allow for greater confidence. Verifying outcomes of particular mitigation strategies inspires mutual confidence in the international community. However, significant technical barriers exist when it comes to institutionalizing credible MRV systems: What is an acceptable baseline target?; what MRV standards should be adopted? (there are many); how to implement MRV systems and how to get reliable data?; and lastly, how to create capable, transparent institutions to monitor MRV?  How these questions are addressed is important not just from a technical perspective; they determine the ability of a country to attract LUCF mitigation finance and more importantly, they directly affect the lives of the people who depend on forests for their survival.

Recently, there has been some progress in addressing these questions on an institutional level. Last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw saw parties to the Kyoto Protocol establish three technical work programs relevant to MRV. These programs will (hopefully):  “explore a comprehensive accounting of LULUCF emissions by sources and removals by sinks; consider and, as appropriate, develop and recommend modalities and procedures for possible additional LULUCF activities under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM); and to consider and, as appropriate, develop and recommend modalities and procedures for alternative approaches to addressing the risk of non-permanence under the CDM.” These are important steps.  First, the lack of “standard” standards makes cross country comparisons a misnomer and makes it difficult for countries to target multiple sources of climate finance. Second, apart from afforestation, other LUCF-related abatement activities are not included in the CDM, as a result,  LULUCF projects in total are woefully underrepresented in the CDM, accounting for less than 1% of total CDM projects.

To energize LUCF abatement, MRV and technical capacity needs to be developed at the local, regional, and national levels. In this regard, Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) certifications have demonstrated communities’ ability to benefit from sustainable forestry initiatives. For example, Nepal’s Dolakha District, SFM certification goes beyond the political autonomy granted through existing legislation to enhance the economic autonomy of local communities and disenfranchised groups. In addition, expert consultancies like the International Partnership on Mitigation and MRV helps countries like India develop MRV plans consistent with their own National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC). In general, the reliance upon a bottom-up structure, such as sub-national REDD+ programs, to inform national REDD+ program design can aid the identification of future participation barriers and improve project efficacy.

Four additional concerns over GHG and carbon stock accounting that also apply to the forestry sector include measurability, additionality, emissions leakage, and permanence. All four are important, contentious and difficult to monitor. These concerns are also the reason why many types of LULUCF activities are excluded in CDM-eligible offset projects. While these are the textbook barriers to any GHG emissions reduction initiatives, in the LUCF sector, these represent an opportunity to transfer better technology. Although technology can effectively shift the balance of power amongst groups, it can also help the MRV debate within a country move forward if its use is considered impartial and transparent. An example of improved MRV is illustrated by Brazil’s Acre state, which has witnessed a steady decline in deforestation rates and managed to protect 86% of its forest cover by employing Landsat satellite images. The local government employs higher resolution technology, which greatly increases monitoring effectiveness and lowers deforestation monitoring costs, making it an extremely viable mitigation option in Brazil.[1]

Lastly, the cost of MRV is something that should be given due consideration, even if the technology exists. MRV technical decisions must also be accompanied by cost benefit analysis. For some activities, the climate benefit of MRV may by less than the cost to monitor, serving as another technical and financial barrier. For example, emissions for land degradation have high monitoring costs and low climate/emissions benefit. In such cases, MRV for the sake of MRV is a pointless (and Pareto inefficient).

No matter how you slice up the emissions pie or draw up your projections, it is clear that the forestry sector is critical to global efforts to reduce GHG emissions. Addressing technical barriers is the first step towards attracting more finance, creating transparent and credible institutions and implementing sustainable mitigation strategies.


Bilal Bawany is a second year Master of Global Policy Studies student at the LBJ School specializing in International Development and Governance. His experience in the public health, agribusiness and education sectors has fuelled his interest in how public private enterprise, aid and development policies affect the political economy of service delivery in developing countries.

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