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The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol explicitly recognize the important role of forests in global climate change and, therefore, commit all Parties to protect them and manage them sustainably. After all, the natural growth and expansion of forests buffer the Earth’s atmosphere almost as effectively as do the oceans against ever steeper leaps in CO2 concentrations from our emissions. At present, forests still offer the only practicable means of removing some excess carbon from the atmosphere, an ability reflected simply and convincingly in the famous saw-tooth curve of CO2 concentrations from Mauna Loa.

According to FAO’s most recent Global Forest Resource Assessment, FRA 2005, forests safeguard more carbon, in biomass and soils, than the entire Earth’s atmosphere. However, this carbon store is dwindling. During the closing decade of the last millennium, roughly13†Mha of forests disappeared annually. Sooner or later, most of the carbon, an average of roughly 100 t/ha, which is presently tucked away safely in trees and soils, will find its way into the atmosphere, thereby enhancing global warming. Deforestation thus contributes about one quarter of all anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Deforestation continues to haunt mankind. In spite of some twenty years of worldwide activism against deforestation, we are presently at bay. Finally, the global community has come to see this old acquaintance in new light; we cannot succeed in abating climate change without seriously tackling deforestation. As countries debate and negotiate commitments, measures and incentives for the next commitment periods, reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries is one of the principal challenges.

But what exactly do we mean by deforestation? Which “forests” are considered? Is “deforestation” the issue, or is it “net forest area loss”? Could countries offset some deforestation by afforestation? Surely, emissions from attrition of growing- and carbon stocks within forests by unsustainable use, at present practically unknown, can be as harmful and perhaps as plentiful as those from some forest conversions? Can we afford to ignore them in the climate change context? How do we deal with accrual of carbon stocks in remaining forests through natural growth, through silvicultural enhancement or even through CO2 enrichment of the air?

It is admittedly a wide leap from the broad issue of global deforestation’s impacts on climates to hair-splitting in analyzing relevant terms and definitions, the topic of this paper. However, the step is necessary, as previous negotiations under the UNFCCC have shown. Diverging interpretations of such simple terms as “forest”, “afforestation”, “reforestation” or “deforestation”, and their ramifications for carbon accounting, occupied dozens of pages in IPCC reports and weeks of negotiators’ time, with some ambiguities still lingering on.

FAO and international partners, supported by the SBSTA of the UNFCCC, therefore organized several workshops to clarify and harmonize differing definitions of relevant forestry terms ex post. This paper reflects an FAO contribution to the Rome workshop. It analyzes core forestry terms relevant to ongoing negotiations on reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries and offers supporting terms.

The message is simple: Established and well defined forestry terms should be applied whenever possible and in their correct meaning. New terms that might be needed should be defined ex ante and their use standardised. Consistent, disciplined use of terms will facilitate efficient negotiations, implementation, monitoring and streamlined reporting of a global scourge that we need to tackle.

Josť Antonio Prado
Forest Management Division
Forestry Department, FAO

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