Top scientists discuss world’s largest research program on forests & climate change

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When forests are razed to make room for growing populations and agriculture, vast amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Standing forests, on the other hand, reduce carbon emissions, as well as help alleviate poverty in rural communities, and protect water, soil and biodiversity. Given this role, Theme 4 of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) focuses on harnessing forests to mitigate climate change and help people, forests and trees adapt to its consequences.

With some of the world’s top forests and climate change researchers at its helm, the program is the largest of its kind and critical to designing climate change policies across the globe. Here, four experts, each leading climate change research at an FTA partner center in the CGIAR, discuss the program’s current and future work, and why it is so important.

Christopher Martius from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the coordinator of Theme 4, leads the conversation, and is joined by Peter Minang from the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), Bastiaan Louman from the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), and Glenn Hyman from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in a wide-ranging discussion of one of the defining challenges of our generation.

Why forests and climate change

Christopher Martius (CIFOR): The whole land-use sector is responsible for about 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and deforestation alone is currently responsible for around 11%. Most of those emissions come from deforestation and degradation of tropical forests. That percentage was much higher 20–30 years ago; it was about 15­-16%. So the decrease sounds good, but it only means that deforestation emissions have stayed more or less the same while emissions from other sectors – transport, fossil fuel burning and so on – have gone up. We work on emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in an attempt to limit those greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

Approaches and research focal points

Christopher Martius (CIFOR): But as also a big part of what’s happening to forests is driven by emissions from non-forest sectors, we know there is an urgent need to adapt to climate change. So in the FTA program, we do both: we look at mitigation of climate change (through avoided deforestation and forest degradation) and at ways for forests and people to adapt. We also look at how to develop synergies between these two attempts because very often they require the same activities but have opposing goals, and so the trade-offs need to be considered.
Bastiaan Louman (CATIE): The role forests and trees play in rural livelihoods is also a main issue for us. And that role is being affected by international policies that try to address climate change, and by adaptation. So we’re looking very much to adaptation and mitigation in the context of rural development.
Christopher Martius (CIFOR): That’s a good point. We cannot really separate users of rural areas and users of forests, as often they are the same people. So that means we take a broader landscapes approach; a systems approach where the system is a landscape – a mosaic of forest, cropland, water, settlements and so on.
Bastiaan Louman (CATIE): Exactly. That’s our approach as well. We don’t call it landscapes, we call it territory. We have climate-smart territories where, for example, we also study the role of water for livestock and agriculture crops.
Christopher Martius (CIFOR): To summarize, across the FTA program we work on different levels. We work on the local and subnational level, where we work with the stakeholders – the farmers, forest users and so on – and we work on the national and international level, where policies are often targeted. Several of us are working on measuring carbon and determining reference levels that tell us the amount of carbon lost if a certain area of forest is lost. And we’re identifying drivers of deforestation, which are often not in the forestry sector and so require that cross-sector, or landscapes approach.“This integrated approach is weaved throughout all our work…Because you can’t just work in forests and grow trees and be happy if you don’t have the enabling conditions and policy and society around it, making it possible.”This integrated approach is weaved throughout all our work. We look at various elements in isolation – policy mechanisms; measurement, reporting and verification; deforestation drivers – but then we also take a more holistic view and look at the larger picture, how things work together. And that’s why it is important to have social and policy research in a program that’s basically focusing on forests. Because you can’t just work in forests and grow trees and be happy if you don’t have the enabling conditions and policy and society around it, making it possible.

The state of REDD+ research

Christopher Martius (CIFOR): Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+, is currently the world’s only mitigation mechanism that’s close to implementation. REDD+, that’s a goal to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, but it’s also an international mechanism that is being developed with this goal in mind. At CIFOR, we have a major, international comparative study going on, where we work on policy options and various questions related to implementing REDD+ as a mechanism. We are also looking in detail at 23 different REDD+ projects to see how they do it, what the problems are and what we can learn from them.

Peter Minang (ICRAF): At ICRAF, on the global level we did a detailed comparative analysis of readiness for REDD+ in Indonesia, Cameroon, Peru and Vietnam. Our conclusions are very interesting in the sense that countries are moving on planning at the central level but a lot of the things that are necessarily at the subnational level, on the ground, are not being paid attention to.We also focus on the nesting dimensions of REDD+ where we look at how to nest REDD+ national targets against the district level and through the provinces, where implementation would take place.

Christopher Martius (CIFOR): Yes, that is another big area we’re all working on. What Peter called the nested dimension of REDD+, is what we call multi-level governance in CIFOR. But, basically, it’s the same. It’s the harmonization and coordination of policies across levels and sectors of government and internationally.
Bastiaan Louman (CATIE): I think it’s interesting to hear that we are all doing complementary work at the moment. There’s two things we do with REDD+. One is research, but also we have quite a big emphasis on linking research to practice. For research, we’re looking at the case of Costa Rica, not as a case of REDD+ but as a case of forest transition, and trying to identify how previous policies and strategies have influenced forest cover. We hope this year to have the results and it will be interesting to compare those to the work at the other centers.

Knowledge gaps in forests and climate change research

SUMMARY: Knowledge gaps

  • monitoring and measuring carbon
  • carbon in soils
  • identifying and measuring synergies in climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • monitoring and measuring forest degradation
  • dynamics of and between drivers of deforestation and reforestation
Christopher Martius (CIFOR): We still have many research gaps, for example in monitoring and measuring carbon. We are just beginning to understand carbon in wetlands, mangroves and peatlands, which are a very important part of the emissions in Indonesia especially. And also, we don’t know much about carbon in the deep soils of the tropics. Are there other knowledge gaps your teams can see?
Bastiaan Louman (CATIE): We still see knowledge gaps in the synergies between adaptation and mitigation. There’s a lot of theoretical knowledge that needs to be validated and we also need to identify how to measure the existence of those synergies, and how to include them in the development of strategies and plans.
Peter Minang (ICRAF): And just to add to that, one of the things we haven’t figured out very clearly is the metrics. How can you quantify synergy in climate change mitigation and adaptation?
Bastiaan Louman (CATIE): Another important topic is degradation, in Latin America in particular. I think we’re still not capable of monitoring or even identifying degradation, or knowing the level of degradation that might mean forest is in danger of disappearing or changing completely.
Peter Minang (ICRAF): I also think we need to pay more attention to understanding dynamics of drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, and interactions between these drivers, in a way that allows us to target the best points to leverage them. That will enable us to make incentives more efficient. I think we also probably need to make some distinction between drivers of reforestation, of forest recovery, versus drivers of deforestation.
Glenn Hyman (CIAT): Along similar lines, we are studying the huge reduction in deforestation in Brazil between 2004 and 2012. We don’t know exactly what it was that gave us this reduction. We know the component parts, like systems to monitor deforestation, control measures, private sector moratoriums, things that were in play in Brazil, but we’re not sure about their relative contribution. I think this is an area where we’re especially well placed, given that we have people working on the trade aspects, on the MRV aspects, or on control and government policy. We need to know what happened in Brazil to see how that could apply in other regions of the tropics.

Future research across the centers

Cameroon. Photo by Ollivier Girard

“Working on climate change and forests cannot be a goal in itself unless it is also addressing the other goals that land use has.”

Christopher Martius (CIFOR): We will be looking specifically at the REDD+ mechanism and making it more applicable, more implementable for countries, and produce research that helps partners to design efficient and effective – and also equitable – policies. Because, in the end, working on climate change and forests cannot be a goal in itself unless it is also addressing the other goals that land use has, like giving livelihoods to people, giving income possibilities, and preserving forests not only for climate, but to meet many of society’s needs.
Bastiaan Louman (CATIE): We have just started work in almost all of the knowledge gaps we discussed: monitoring; carbon accounting in different types of forests; identifying degradation; carbon in wetlands, particularly linking it to carbon accounting and adaptation of local communities; the drivers of reforestation; and synergies between adaptation and mitigation, particularly those synergies in relation to ecosystem services. We hope to do much more research on the impact of climate change on ecosystem services and then try to look at the trade-offs and the synergies in promoting certain ecosystem services in forests.
Glenn Hyman (CIAT): Last year FTA through Theme 4 joined the Global Forest Watch, so we’d like to build on that partnership to better use different data products to monitor forest change. A lot of work on forest monitoring around the globe is very upstream; it’s people in advanced research institutes that are putting together datasets. Very little of that work has people on the ground. And that’s where FTA has a huge comparative advantage, because we are on the ground, and that’s where we can really contribute something.
Indonesia. Photo by Nanang Sujana

“Very little of that work has people on the ground. And that’s where FTA has a huge comparative advantage and where we can really contribute something.”

Glenn Hyman (CIAT): I think the future is in trying to predict deforestation before it happens. We’ve already started doing some modeling work to try to see where deforestation may be in the future. A lot of us have also been doing work on low emissions development strategies, or using the landscape approach to look at possible futures for either a country or a subnational region. And this is where I think FTA has a lot to contribute. By working with our partners on the ground, we can navigate different strategies and see what their impacts are going to be on greenhouse gas emissions and ecosystem services.
Peter Minang (ICRAF): At ICRAF we’re looking at the decarbonization of the whole climate perspective. At the moment, everything is about carbon. But I think, going forward, we may need to shift a bit from a carbon focus to broader adaptation and synergy research.We’d also like to continue to work with FTA partners on several things. We will continue to develop methodologies building on the success of our opportunity cost analysis for REDD+ methodology and on the LUWES (land Use Planning for Low Emissions Development) methodology, which is in line with low emissions development planning strategy. And we will build on the broad understanding that we’ve established that the drivers of deforestation are beyond forests, and so any successful approach has to be at a landscape level or from a multisectoral perspective. We’ve established a lot of contact with our CIFOR colleagues on how to address this; CATIE will also be a good partner to work with on this.And the last focus is to look at a co-investment approach to climate change and multifunctionality at landscape level, or ecosystem services as it relates to climate, because all of the current funding – bilateral donor funds, multilateral climate funds and the carbon finance are likely to be insufficient. So we do need to leverage private sector and public co-investments in the system.

How the FTA program has impact

Christopher Martius (CIFOR): Some of you have already mentioned that you work closely with partners, countries, and agencies, and help them develop evidence-based approaches. I know each center also focuses on capacity building, which is a very important part of the FTA strategy because that’s how we can have great impact, by multiplying our work through partners. We also have an interesting and important outreach strategy in terms of dissemination of knowledge through not only the typical products of science, but also through policy briefs and blogs, where we boil down information into manageable chunks and understandable words, as well as pictures, photos and presentations.What are the major outcome pathways you see? How are you making sure that you do the right thing and that what you’re doing is getting to the right users?
Bastiaan Louman (CATIE): All the research CATIE does is fed straight into its educational program. We have master’s degree and PhD students here. It’s also fed straight into our development projects, which are regional. But I think one of our strengths is that we use the research results in the design of new projects to address those results. So, for example, with the regional REDD+ program, any results are fed to the region straight away. We have direct contact with eight governments in Central America and the Caribbean.At the same time, there’s the new Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN), which is part of the UNFCCC. CIAT and ICRAF are members and we share knowledge that FTA has to address specific problems that national governments have. Countries can then incorporate it into their strategies and policies.
Peter Minang (ICRAF): I think we have two or three ways in which we ensure outcomes and high impact in our work. We’ve been involved in training government officers directly at district, national and province level in Indonesia, Peru, Cameroon and Vietnam. We sometimes provide implementation support at their request at national level, but also at project and other levels. And that’s how we’ve been able to reach almost 300, 400 technical staff in the governments in these countries.The second way is that all of ICRAF’s FTA work goes through the ASB program, the Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins. And the ASB program has, at the heart of it, national partners that are part of all our projects. With CIAT, we work a lot with all of the national research institutions, such that a lot of the methodologies, a lot of the research, is embedded in their systems. And they can then carry that into the public practice and policy systems. But we do also feed that directly into the national REDD+ processes, in the case of Peru, even in the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) processes.
Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira

“Really our impact starts with partnerships – with both the public and private sector.”

Glenn Hyman (CIAT): I very much agree with Peter. Really our impact starts with partnerships – with both the public and private sector. It’s really important that we engage our partners at the beginning, at the outset, when we start new research activities, so that they’re involved in them.Just to give one example where we expect some good outcomes in the next couple of years, with our Terra-I program, we’re working with the government of Peru, with the enforcement unit that’s going to be charged with enforcing new deforestation laws and policies. And, of course, to the extent that they can use that imagery to be able to plan how they implement the deforestation policy, we think we can have a big impact.And I would just also agree with Peter about the point about NAMAs and similar mechanisms. In Colombia, we work very closely with all the institutions that are involved in the national emissions reductions strategy. And I think having technical people in those agencies that are working on our research project, that’s how we get the results of that research, the insights that we’ve gained into the actual strategies of the countries we’re working on.

A final reflection

Plot sample Photo by Nanang Sujana for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Indonesia. Photo by Nanang Sujana

“Climate change has to be addressed in the context of the larger development debate and I think that’s why we are proud to be in this program.”

Christopher Martius (CIFOR): I think we’re coming to the end of our session. It’s been a very interesting, enlightening debate and a good overview of what we’re doing in the forests and climate change theme, in the context of the larger FTA program.
It is evident that first, this is not research that’s done for the sake of academic insight and wisdom. It’s research that’s done with a very practical application in mind. And we achieve that by working very closely with our partners. And second, it’s research that tries to address the very particular problem of climate change and how it can be affected through addressing deforestation and forest degradation. But, we are looking at this problem through a much broader lens, linking this problem to the larger development problems, to the larger low emission development and decarbonization strategies, to economics, to finance and so on. Climate change has to be addressed in the context of the larger development debate. That’s very important to realize, and I think that’s why we are proud to be in this program.

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