Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Climate-smart forestry

Production and Resources

Climate-smart forestry in practice

Forests are linked to climate change in four main ways. First, when they are cleared, overused, degraded and generally improperly managed, forests contribute up to one-sixth of global carbon emissions. Second, forests are vulnerable to changes in the climate. Third, when managed sustainably, forests produce woodfuels, which can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Fourth, forests have the potential to absorb about one-tenth of the carbon projected to be emitted globally in the first half of this century into their biomass, soils and products and, in principle, to store this carbon in perpetuity (FAO, 2012).

Climate-smart approaches in forestry are broadly similar to those in other sectors. As described in module A2, climate-smart initiatives are connected with most major crosscutting themes of development and environment. For this reason, it is expected that 'climate-smart' will become the default development approach. Key considerations for implementing a climate-smart approach to development in the forest sector include the need to: 

  • respond to considerable increases in global demand for wood and NWFPs in the face of climate change and other factors;
  • address specific issues related to food access and the livelihoods of forest-dependent people across the supply, value and benefit chains;
  • interact effectively with emerging technological, commercial and socially driven changes in, or associated with, the forest sector; 
  • identify gaps in capacity, efficiency and system resilience in the forest sector, particularly those gaps that are likely to increase under climate stress, and develop generic or specific actions to address them;
  • identify options for strengthening the coordination of activities within the forest sector to improve, for example, the flow of goods and services, ensure efficient resource use and enhance functional resilience;
  • connect activities in the forest sector in a coherent manner with other development objectives, including hunger eradication, poverty alleviation, natural resource protection and rehabilitation, nutritional safety and health, personal and community empowerment, self-determination and vulnerability reduction;
  • ensure that responses are clearly recognizable and actionable by policy agents working effectively with practitioners and beneficiaries at all levels, and are based on clear evidence of functionality and effectiveness; 
  • sustainably manage forests to increase forest growth and carbon storage;
  • use forest raw materials to manufacture products as a way of storing carbon;
  • conserve forests to protect standing trees; provide ecosystem services, such as water replenishment and shelter for fauna; and sustain the livelihoods of forest-dependent indigenous peoples and local communities; and 
  • use forests and trees to reduce reliance on oil, coal and gas by delivering more raw materials for climate-smart products, such as biobased fuels and timber products.

Many lessons on climate-smart approaches can be learned from other agricultural sectors, but it is also clear that forestry has distinct characteristics, including the significant level of socio-economic dependence of many poor and marginalized people on forests and trees (FAO, 2014). This chapter presents various approaches to forest management. Policy approaches are addressed in chapter B3-4 .2.

Figure 2 illustrates the general pathway for integrating climate-smart practices into forestry. It applies to a given forest management unit  (i.e. a well-defined and demarcated area, predominantly covered by forests, that is managed on a long-term basis and has a set of clear objectives specified in a forest management plan). This pathway generally involves the following 12 steps:

  1. Assess the risk that climate change poses to the achievement of the management objectives of the forest management unit (i.e. the delivery of desired forest products and ecosystem services).
  2. Identify the forest-dependent people and forest areas in (or close to) the forest management unit that are most vulnerable to the likely impacts of climate change.
  3. Identify forest management measures that would reduce the vulnerability of forest-dependent people and forest areas to climate change, or would increase their adaptation capacity, and estimate the costs of implementing those measures in the forest management unit.
  4. Gather information on policies, institutions and financial and technical incentives; the availability of support for undertaking adaptation measures; and the requirements for gaining access to such incentives and support.
  5. Identify the options available in the forest management unit for mitigating climate change, including the actions to be taken, the schedule for taking such actions, the costs involved and the expected mitigation benefits.
  6. Conduct a cost-benefit assessment to identify the most cost-effective mitigation and adaptation options, taking into consideration synergies and trade-offs between them.
  7. Adjust the forest management plan and other planning tools to accommodate the identified mitigation and adaptation measures and incorporate the knowledge gained through assessments of vulnerability, risks and options for mitigation.
  8. Identify capacity development needs and opportunities to implement mitigation and adaptation measures.
  9. Adjust management practices to achieve the specified mitigation and adaptation goals.
  10. Adjust forest monitoring and evaluation procedures to allow for additional responses that may be required in relation to the specified mitigation and adaptation actions.
  11. Develop mechanisms to ensure the continual adaptation of forest management in response to the results of monitoring and evaluation.

Figure B3.2. Approach for adopting climate-smart practices in forestry

Vulnerability and risk assessment of climate change impacts and mitigation options

The scope and scale of assessments of vulnerability, risk and mitigation options carried out in the forest sector will depend on the following factors:

  • the focal area of the assessments;
  • the time available for the assessments;
  • the questions to be addressed by the assessments and the decisions the assessments would support;
  • the funds available for the assessments;
  • the level of support from key stakeholders; and
  • the value of the resources that may be at risk.

The goal of vulnerability and risk assessments is to identify the vulnerable groups in a given population, the ecological systems and that infrastructure that are vulnerable to climate change, and assess the risks of negative impacts. Climate change vulnerability assessments of forests and forest-dependent communities can involve a range of approaches and sources of information (e.g. local knowledge, expert opinion and detailed data collection and technical analyses). Box B3.4 outlines the steps to be taken when conducting forest-related vulnerability and risk assessments on climate change.

Box B3.4  Steps in conducting forest-related vulnerability and risk assessments on climate change

  1. Identify the likely impacts of climate change on ecosystems and their ramifications for the well-being of forest-dependent communities. 
  2. Assess the vulnerability of forests and forest-dependent communities to these impacts. At the national level, government agencies and research institutions that collect and analyse climate-related information are likely to be involved in downscaling global and regional climate models to national and subnational levels. Vulnerability and risk assessments generally involve an analysis of climate sensitivity (Cardona et al., 2012), followed  by an evaluation of the capacity of ecosystems and communities to adapt to climate change. To analyse the sensitivity of forests and forest-dependent communities to changing climatic conditions, the following factors should be considered:
  • the current and expected stresses on the forest area;
  • the known climatic conditions, and how these affect the forest area;
  • the projected changes in climatic conditions and the likely impacts of those changes on forests;
  • the expected changes in stresses on a system as a result of the likely impacts of climate change;
  • the capacity of the forest or forest-dependent community to adapt to climate change;
  • the constraints on the capacity of the forest or forest-dependent community to accommodate changes in climatic conditions;
  • estimates as to whether the projected rate of climate change is likely to be faster than the capacity of the forest or forest-dependent community to adapt; and
  • ongoing efforts in the local area to address the impacts of climate change on forests and forest-dependent communities.

To determine the extent to which forests and forest-dependent communities are vulnerable to climate change, combine the findings of the climate sensitivity analysis and the evaluation of their capacity to adapt.

Assessment of adaptation options

After completing assessments to determine how forest ecosystems and forest-dependent communities will be affected by changing climatic conditions, the next step is to examine the management options that would reduce vulnerability, increase resilience and enable adaptation to climate change and climate variability. 

Adaptation approaches can be grouped into two broad categories (FAO, 2013):

  • Adaptation of forests, which refers to making forests more resilient to climate change. From a global perspective, several forest management interventions can be made, such as:
    • improving resilience through 'best practices' that address forest productivity, biodiversity, water availability and quality, fire, pests and diseases, extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and the economic, social and institutional context;
    • adapting management plans and practices to increase resilience, reduce risks and adapt to changes; and
    • in situ and ex situ genetic conservation  (see chapter B8-5).
  • Adaptation using forests, which involve measures to decrease the vulnerability of forest-dependent people to climate change. These measures may include:
    • the diversification of rural incomes and the provision of support for the establishment of small-and medium-sized forest enterprises;
    • the reinforcement of local and traditional coping strategies;
    • the maintenance of access to forests as 'safety nets';
    • adopting a 'rights-based approach' to adaptation measures, including land and resource tenure rights, the rights of indigenous peoples and community rights; and
    • the strengthening of local governance, including participatory and community-based governance.

These actions are intended to support forest managers and other stakeholders in dealing with the challenges of adapting to climate change. They are drawn mostly from existing forest management practices. However, these actions give greater consideration to the spatial and temporal aspects of climate change; the protection of forest communities; management measures to reduce vulnerability to expected changes and extreme climate-driven disturbances; and increased flexibility in forest management plans to deal with climate-related uncertainties and surprises.

Due to the fact that addressing the impacts of climate change while involve many jurisdictional issues and entail significant financial costs, responses cannot be undertaken by forest managers acting only at the local level. Effective responses to many of the impacts of climate change will need to be cross-sectoral and require action at a landscape, regional or national level. To prepare for these impacts, coordination is needed among government agencies, non-governmental organizations and stakeholders in multiple sectors (e.g. natural resources, public health and safety, emergency and disaster risk management, recreation, and economic development). 

Assessment of mitigation options

The benefits of climate change mitigation initiatives in forests must be weighed against their costs, and the impacts, both negative and positive, they will have on meeting other forest management objectives. The aim should be to maximize the economic and social benefits and minimize the social and environmental costs of adjusting forest management plans to mitigate climate change.

Mitigation options can be grouped into four general categories:

  1. maintaining the area under forest by reducing deforestation and promoting forest conservation and protection;
  2. increasing the area under forest (e.g. through afforestation and reforestation);
  3. maintaining or increasing carbon density of forest stands and landscapes with forests, by avoiding forest degradation and managing timber production so that, on average, carbon stocks remain constant or increase over time, and restoring degraded forests; and
  4. increasing off-site carbon stocks in harvested wood products.

To assess the suitability of these options in a given forest area, information is required on:

  • national policies and regulations related to incentives to undertake mitigation actions and any potential disincentives;
  • the feasibility of mitigation options, given existing forest cover and current forest management objectives;
  • the potential for maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, and thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions over time as a result of adjusting management plans or practices;
  • requirements for measuring forest carbon and verifying mitigation;
  • requirements for ensuring there is no 'leakage', which can result, for example, when changes in the management of a forest management unit lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere;
  • the capacity to provide evidence that mitigation measures were 'additional' to business-as-usual forest management practices;
  • the actual costs, the opportunity costs and the benefits of implementing and monitoring the mitigation actions; and
  • the likely positive and negative economic, social and environmental side-effects of implementing the mitigation actions.

After completing assessments to determine how forest ecosystems and forest-dependent communities will be affected by changing climatic conditions, the next step is to examine the management options that would reduce vulnerability, increase resilience, and enable adaptation to climate change and climate variability. Although these options may be drawn from existing forest management practices, their implementation must give greater consideration to spatial and temporal aspects of climate change; the protection of forest communities; the management measures to reduce vulnerability to expected changes and extreme climate-driven disturbances; and assurances that there is enough flexibility in forest management plans to deal with climate-related uncertainties and surprises.

Forest monitoring 

Forest monitoring, which detects changes in forests due to climate change, natural disturbances and human activities, has become an essential element in REDD+ and other efforts to mitigate climate change in the forest sector. Given the benefits that accurate carbon monitoring could bring within the REDD+ framework, forest-monitoring practice has developed considerably in recent years, and its accuracy has increased accordingly, along with acceptance of its necessity. 

Successful monitoring has clear objectives, is as simple as possible, and provides benefits for those people who invest time and/or money in it. Often, the objectives of monitoring may be clear, but the activities needed to achieve them are vague. This may be in part due to a lack of certainty on how the climate will change and consequently which elements of forests and forest management should be monitored. FAO and partners have developed several tools and methodologies, such as Collect Earth (see Box B3.5), to support countries in monitoring, measuring, reporting and verification (see module C10).

Box B3.5  Collect Earth

Collect Earth is a tool that enables data collection from remote sensing images. In conjunction with Google Earth, Bing Maps and Google Earth Engine, users can analyse high- and very-high-resolution satellite imagery for a wide variety of purposes, such as:

  • supporting multiphase national forest inventories;
  • conducting assessments of land use, land-use change and forestry;
  • monitoring agricultural land and urban areas;
  • validating existing maps;
  • collecting spatially explicit socio-economic data; and
  • quantifying deforestation, reforestation and desertification.

Collect Earth’s user-friendliness and smooth learning curve make it an efficient tool for performing fast, accurate, cost-effective assessments. It is highly customizable for specific data collection needs and methodologies. Data gathered through Collect Earth are exportable to commonly used formats and can also be exported to Saiku, a tool that facilitates data analysis. 

For more information, go to Collect Earth

Monitoring helps identify changes and evaluate trends, but it does not necessarily indicate the reasons behind the changes and trends. An important step, therefore, is to analyse the collected data to determine the whether there is a need to adapt the forest management approach.

Discussions on the implementation of REDD+ are taking place at the national level, but most monitoring experience has been obtained from forest management units. Although the monitoring needs at these two levels differ, they are highly complementary, and consideration should be given to linking them in the carbon monitoring system. It is essential that all stakeholders are involved in decisions on monitoring methodologies and variables. The involvement of local actors has been shown to have two advantages: it is less expensive than alternatives methods; and it creates greater ownership of monitoring results (Skutsch et al., 2009). Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, national forest monitoring systems should be built on three 'pillars' to support the development of REDD+ (Box B3.6).

Box B3.6  National forest monitoring systems

The three-pillar national forest monitoring system approach to monitoring forest-based emissions is based on the following methodological equation proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

emissions (E) = activity data (AD) x emission factors (EF).

Each element of this equation represents a pillar of the forest monitoring system. The monitoring function will be nationally specific and can encompass the needs of REDD+ and other mechanisms. However the focus should be on two aspects of monitoring that are specific to REDD+:

  1. monitoring to assess the performance of REDD+ demonstration activities in Phase 2 of REDD+ implementation; and
  2. monitoring the performance of national REDD+ policies and measures in Phase 3 of REDD+ implementation.

The performance of REDD+ activities, policies and measures can be assessed through the direct monitoring of carbon stocks and removals, and indirectly through proxy indicators (e.g. forest canopy changes and forest certification schemes). The three essential elements of national forest monitoring systems are:

  1. a satellite land-monitoring system to collect and assess activity data (i.e. AD in the equation above) related to forestlands;
  2. a national forest inventory to collect information on forest carbon stocks and changes for estimating emissions and removals and provide emissions factors (i.e. EF); and
  3. a national greenhouse gas inventory as a tool for reporting on anthropogenic forest-related emissions (i.e. E) by sources and removals by sinks to the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

More information: National Forest Monitoring Systems: Monitoring and Measurement, Reporting and Verification (M & MRV) in the context of REDD+ Activities

Monitoring climate-induced changes in forests

Ensuring that forests can adapt to climate change requires an understanding of the changes in forests that may occur due to climate change and the extent to which adaptation may be necessary and desirable. General scenarios of forest change can be developed based on projections of global and regional climate change (Fischlin et al., 2009; Jimenez et al., 2009), but the precise nature of these changes is not well known. The reasons for this relate to the scale at which climate change projections are made; uncertainties in climate change models; and a lack of knowledge on the adaptive capacity of species and the ecological communities of which they are part, and how the effects of the interactions between species will affect adaptive capacity. In some forests, drastic changes have been projected. The northeastern Amazon, for example, could lose most of its forest cover because of massive forest dieback due to drought, giving rise to savannah vegetation (Malhi et al., 2008). However, the rate of change and exact outcomes are unclear (Mayle and Power, 2008). 

To provide forest managers with sufficient information on which to base decisions, adaptation strategies should include monitoring systems on climate, vegetation, fauna and essential non-biological components of forests, such as water availability. Monitoring systems are especially important in forestry because of the long time lag between management actions and forest responses. The monitoring of permanent sample plots has always been integral to sustainable forest management.

To analyse the effects of climate change on forests, a combination of remote sensing for detecting change in forest area and a network of permanent sample plots for detecting change in forest quality may be the most appropriate strategy. Given its specialized nature, monitoring through remote sensing may best be carried out at the landscape, subnational or national level. It will require that all potential users of the monitoring information agree on a common set of variables based on their usefulness in supporting forest management decisions under changing climate conditions (Peterson et al., 1999). 

Strengthening the capacity of forests to respond to climate change

The adaptive capacity of forests can be understood as their inherent ability to adjust to changing conditions by moderating the harm caused by these changes and taking advantage of the opportunities these changes open up (Locatelli et al., 2010). Strengthening adaptive capacity involves increasing the resistance or resilience of a forest to change. It also may involve adapting the forest to new conditions by facilitating changes in the ecosystem, for example through the introduction of certain species. In general, the purpose of strengthening the adaptive capacity of forests is to maintain, restore or enhance forest area, biodiversity and forest health and vitality. Many of the actions aimed at mitigating climate change through REDD+ have strong potential synergies with actions designed to strengthen forest adaptive capacity, especially if such actions consider ecological safeguards, such as biodiversity conservation.

Most of the experience in strengthening forest adaptive capacity in the face of climate change has been gained in tree plantations and agroforestry systems. These systems tend to have simpler structures and composition than natural forests. This makes it easier to detect changes due to climate change and design and implement mechanisms to strengthen adaptation. Designing such mechanisms is much more difficult in complex natural forests, especially in the tropics. However, plantations and agroforestry systems, precisely because of their simplicity, may also be more vulnerable to climate change, and their need for adaptation measures may be greater. In these systems, adaptation measures are often designed to increase diversity (e.g. see recommendations by Innes et al., 2009).