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Conflicting Data: How Fast Is the World Losing its Forests?

October 10, 2018 |

By Ibama from Brasil (Operação Hymenaea, Julho/2016) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on Yale Environment 360.

The latest UN report on climate says reducing deforestation is crucial to slowing global warming. But researchers must first reconcile two contradictory sets of statistics on tree loss in order to determine whether promises made by nations to protect and restore forests are on target.

The world is losing trees faster than ever. An area the size of Italy disappeared last year. Or did it? New research suggests three-quarters of those lost forests may already be regrowing. That hardly means we are out of the woods. Fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity still needs a global campaign to reforest the planet. But it does suggest that, given the chance, nature will do much of the work.

This week, a special report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed the vital role that ending deforestation can play in holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To underline the point, the UN’s environment, development, and agriculture chiefs issued a joint statement declaring that “forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change – thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon. Stopping deforestation and restoring damaged forests could provide up to 30 percent of the climate solution.”

But behind the challenging words lies a yawning data gap. For we still know remarkably little for sure about the true extent of deforestation and its contribution to carbon emissions and climate change. As Peter Holmgren, then director-general of the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia, put it last year, the existing deforestation data is of “low quality,” relying either on satellite imaging that is “shallow, ambiguous, and generally incomparable” or on government data that may “under-report deforestation for political reasons.” Researchers say we urgently need a way out of the statistical quagmire. And this year the first tentative steps at resolving the data crisis have been taken…”

Read on at: Yale Environment 360.

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