Press Release

RFF Spearheading New Study to Measure, Monitor Global Forests

Feb 20, 2009


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 20, 2009
CONTACT: RFF Office of Communications, 202-328-5026

WASHINGTON—An international team of researchers led by Resources for the Future has launched a major initiative to better measure and monitor Earth’s forest cover.

The project, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, will assess the advantages and limitations of existing technologies, including satellite observations, to measure four critical attributes of global forests – area, timber volume, biomass, and carbon sequestration capability.

“Our aim is to design a convincing and workable framework for developing a comprehensive and real-time ‘census’ of the world’s tropical, boreal, and temperate forests,” says principal investigator Molly Macauley, a senior fellow at RFF. “This is a timely and significant study, since modern forest management has expanded to include climate policy issues, and new global surveillance techniques from space are enabling more accurate and practical observations.”

The project, entitled The World’s Forests: Design and Implementation of Effective Measurement and Monitoring, aims to complete the framework for a world forest observatory by the end of 2009. Implementation of the plan would take place beginning in 2010.

Improving Data Collection

Existing efforts to gauge forest attributes are problematic, says RFF Senior Fellow Roger Sedjo, co-leader of the project and head of RFF’s Forest Economics and Policy Program (FEPP).

“Most forest measurements are done by individual countries or researchers in geographically limited areas,” says Sedjo. “The only periodic collection of global forest data is done at five-year intervals under the auspices of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. Unfortunately, the process relies heavily on country provided data and often produces unreliable results.”

Today, forests cover about a third of Earth’s landmass and provide a wide range of benefits, Sedjo notes, including timber and fuelwood production, habitat and biodiversity preservation, erosion control, and recreation. Forests sequester billions of tons of carbon, he says, but release significant quantities of greenhouse gases when harvested. Estimates suggest the Canadian boreal forest alone may store around 180 billion tons of carbon, or the equivalent of more than 25 years of the world’s present carbon dioxide fossil fuel emissions.

“Improved measurement of forests – and changes in afforestation, reforestation, and deforestation – to estimate carbon storage more precisely is fundamental to understanding the global carbon budget in scientific terms.  In addition, better measures and monitoring could help to advance public policy, such as use of carbon sequestration by forests as a means of offsetting greenhouse gas emissions,” says Macauley. “Transactions in future forest carbon offsets could constitute large transfers of wealth between nations. These transfers will impel a commensurate demand for accurate information on the size and condition of global forests.”

In addition to Macauley and Sedjo, the project team includes:

James Boyd, Senior Fellow, RFF;  Pekka E. Kauppi, Professor and Chair, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki; Jingyun Fang, Professor and Chair, Department of Ecology, Peking University; Alan Grainger, Senior Lecturer in Geography, University of Leeds; Paul Waggoner, Distinguished Scientist 1987 to present, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station; Brent Sohngen, Professor, Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, The Ohio State University and RFF University Fellow; Ruth DeFries, Denning Family Chair in Sustainable Development and Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, Columbia University, and Professor, University of Maryland; Josef Kellndorfer, Associate Scientist, The Woods Hole Research Center; Michael Obersteiner, Seconded Science Officer, GEO, and the Group Leader for the Forestry Project, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis; Michael Toman, Adjunct Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; Craig Dobson, Chief Scientist, Office of Earth Science, NASA; Mark Brender, Vice President, GeoEye, Inc. and Chair, GeoEye Foundation; and Mark Cohen, Vice President for Research, RFF.

Organizations represented on RFF’s FEPP Advisory Committee include International Forestry Advisors, Society of American Foresters, American Forest and Paper Association, Weyerhaeuser, World Wildlife Fund, MeadWestvaco Corporation, Conservation International, and The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment.

This project will be supported by a grant of $330,000 from the Sloan Foundation.

Founded in 1952, Resources for the Future is a nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization that conducts independent policy analysis – rooted primarily in economics and other social sciences – on energy, environmental, and natural resource issues. Headquartered in Washington, DC, its research scope comprises programs in nations around the world.


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Founded in 1952, Resources for the Future is an independent and nonpartisan institution.