11/14/2013 05:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

New High-Resolution Forest Maps Reveal World Loses 50 Soccer Fields of Trees Per Minute

by Nigel Sizer, Matt Hansen and Rebecca Moore

A new publication in Science reveals the world is losing 50 soccer fields' worth of forest every minute of every day!

While this information is distressing, the publication of this new research is a decidedly positive development in the availability of data to support better forest management and policy. The Science paper provides the first high-resolution, global picture of annual forest cover change over the period 2000 to 2012, with the promise of timely annual updates starting in early 2014. Prior to this research, the world lacked up-to-date, globally consistent forest data-- most information about forests is years out-of-date by the time it finds its way into policymakers' hands.

Three key findings emerge from the new maps-and they point to solutions policymakers can pursue now. (For more key findings, scroll to the bottom of the post.)

The world lost the equivalent of 68,000 soccer fields of forest every day over the past 13 years -- 50 soccer fields per minute. Efforts to reduce forest loss should be accelerated.

More than one billion poor people depend on forests for their livelihoods, while we all depend on these ecosystems as a central part of the global carbon, water, and climate systems. Losing 2.3 million square kilometers of forest in just 13 years, as the new research shows, is therefore of great concern. This translates to 50 soccer fields' worth of forests every minute of every day over the last 13 years . This includes losses due to fires and pests, as well as forests that were cleared for forestry operations, some of which are replanted or will regenerate naturally.

Plus, forest loss in the tropics is increasing by about 2,000 square kilometers each year. Tropical forests are those most valuable to the poor, store the most carbon, and are home to more biodiversity than almost any other type of forest on Earth.

But there is some good news. The new data shows that while Brazil still suffers very high rates of forest clearing, the country has roughly halved its annual rates of forest loss. The strategies Brazil used to reduce its deforestation can inform how policymakers respond to the troubling rates of forest decline in other countries:

  • Brazil has invested in a top-class system for monitoring what is happening to its forests, and shares this information in near-real time with enforcement agencies and the public. Better, consistent, and transparent data can lead to improved forest management.
  • The country has made serious efforts to align financial incentives with better forest stewardship, such as making municipalities' access to agricultural credit dependent upon reducing local rates of forest loss.
  • Brazil has systematically recognized customary land rights and indigenous people's claims to forest land (though some significant conflicts and outstanding claims continue). More than 20 percent of the Amazon region is now managed by indigenous peoples. Some conflicts and claims remain, but progress has been remarkable. Evidence is growing showing that rates of forest loss decline when local communities and traditional peoples are given the power to manage natural resources.

Nonetheless, recent changes in Brazil's Forest Code are concerning, and in the past year, there has been a significant uptick in the country's rate of forest loss. It's important that Brazil continue its tremendous efforts to address the direct and underlying drivers of forest loss -- both to reduce its own deforestation and to act as a model for other countries.

Indonesia in particular might learn from Brazil's experience. The new research shows that rates of forest loss in Indonesia have steadily increased. Even though Indonesia is only one-quarter the size of Brazil, the two countries are now losing almost the same amount of forest each year. Indonesia, like most countries, lacks readily available, up-to-date information about the state of its forests. Plus, it has not aligned financial incentives with efforts to reduce forest loss. Recent progress has been made with Indonesia's forest moratorium, which prevents new licenses to clear primary forest, but it suffers enforcement challenges. It's too early to tell if the moratorium has actually reduced forest loss. Much more could also be done to curb forest loss in Indonesia by transitioning agricultural operations to already-cleared or degraded lands.

Several "overlooked" countries are experiencing high percentage forest cover loss. Policymakers need to pay more attention to forests outside of the headline-making regions of the Amazon, Congo, and Indonesia.

Brazil and Indonesia still account for about half of all tropical forest loss. But in percentage terms, a number of other countries are losing their forests faster. These other countries have received far less attention than the large, tropical forest countries, but will require significant technical and financial support to reduce their deforestation rates.

By providing a globally consistent measure of patterns of forest loss and gain, the new analysis helps highlight countries and regions that deserve more attention, for example:

  • Malaysia has witnessed annual forest loss of 1.6 percent between 2000-2012, compared with Indonesia's 1.0 percent. While the absolute area lost in Indonesia is far higher, more attention should be given to the dynamics in Malaysia, which is experiencing rapid deforestation due to expansion of its forestry and palm oil industries.
  • In Africa, attention on forests tends to focus on the Congo region, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cote d'Ivoire and other parts of West Africa have, however, seen more dramatic dynamics of forest loss, perhaps linked with patterns of conflict and the global agricultural commodities boom. Liberia, for example, is currently witnessing controversy around planned major investments in oil palm plantations.
  • The tropical dry forests of Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia are undergoing the highest rates of loss in Latin America. Again, this is likely linked with expanding agro-industry supplying global commodities markets.

A common theme in many of these regions is growing global demand for commodities such as soy, beef, palm oil, pulpwood, and biofuels. More granular analysis is needed to identify and quantify the precise drivers of forest loss. This will be possible, as researchers will soon be able to download and sift through the new global maps published today. In the meantime, new initiatives aimed at reducing forest loss linked with these commodities--such as the Tropical Forests Alliance 2020 and efforts like commodity roundtables--should be supported.

Accurate, transparent accounting about the state of forests and land use change are key to helping curb forest loss. Better data is also vital for informing global climate change talks now taking place in Poland.

The analysis published today coincides with the annual international climate negotiations (COP 19). Human-caused forest loss is responsible for about 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, reducing greenhouse gas emissions also depends on reducing forest loss. The new analysis shows that global forest trends are working against efforts to address climate change, and that for some major emerging economies, such as Indonesia and Brazil, forest loss is likely to continue to be the *primary *source of emissions.

At the same time, forests and land use change actually have the potential to sequester rather than emit greenhouse gases. Initiatives like the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration and the Bonn Challenge are taking early steps to build a global "re-greening" movement, restoring productivity to deforested and degraded lands. We expect these and related efforts to gain far more attention in the near future, and encourage policymakers to embrace the re-greening movement.

High-quality, independently produced, credible, up-to-date data -- shared in ways that policymakers, companies, civil society, and local communities can understand and act upon -- is vital for improving forest management worldwide. The new, high-resolution maps published today show that this kind of information-sharing is now possible, thanks to advances in remote sensing science and cloud computing. Let's turn this better data into better decisions.

Matt Hansen is a professor at the University of Maryland and lead author of the paper published in Science today. Rebecca Moore is the manager of the Google Earth Outreach program and a co-author on the Science paper.