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Launching the Global Forest Observation Initiative (GFOI)

GEO’s forest carbon tracking activities received strong and unanimous support in Beijing, and they are set to accelerate over the coming year with the establishment of the Global Forest Observation Initiative. Governments also recognized the contribution that this GEO-initiated activity can make to the REDD-plus Partnership, the Climate Change Convention, biodiversity protection, and other forest-related activities.

Forested area near BeijingOver the past several years, the GEO Forest Carbon Tracking Task has made important progress on establishing (i) a framework for coordination, (ii) a number of national demonstrators, (iii) better access to data, and (iv) a set of methods and protocols for ensuring comparability and interoperability. The Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) has supported the Task with critical data, and other contributors have assisted with data processing. Data and products are starting to become available, and the proof of concept for global wall-to-wall monitoring is being demonstrated. The GFOI will build on these achievements of the Forest Carbon Tracking Task in order to sustain and strengthen the provision of data and support services to national governments.

Products and services

The GFOI seeks to ensure a coordinated and continuous supply of satellite, ground and field data; improve the interoperability and integration of data from different sensors; promote coordinated research and development for improving national forest information systems; build capacity for accessing and using Earth observation data; coordinate the systematic provision of forest-carbon information and map products; and support continuing research and development. A GFOI Task Force and a Planning Team have been established to carry out this work.

The objective of the GFOI is assist countries to generate reliable, consistent and comparable reports on forest cover and forest cover change and to estimate forest carbon stocks and trends. This is vitally important for gaining a better understanding of whether forests around the world are helping to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or are instead contributing to the problem of climate change.

Ten governments have agreed to serve as “national demonstrators” in the first phase of the initiative. They are Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guyana, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru and Tanzania. The demonstration phase will run through 2013 and confirm that it is possible to respect national conditions while providing credible and internationally consistent outcomes. It will cover the process from “end to end” – from observations to final products such as maps and assessments of carbon stocks and stock changes.

The development of the GFOI is being led by Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway and the United States. Other contributors include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and GOFC-GOLD (Global Observation of Forest and Land Cover Dynamics).

Data and methodologies

The world’s space agencies are collaborating through CEOS to provide the necessary space data. They include the European Space Agency and the national agencies of Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Japan and the United States.

Space data, in particular mid-resolution (20-30m) satellite images, are key to the success of the Initiative. CEOS has been working to secure the interoperability of the necessary optical and radar (SAR) sensors and to ensure the long-term continuity and availability of satellite data. As a result, by 2013 three radar and three optical sensors will be providing free, open and continuous coverage to support annual forest observations; at least another half dozen sensors may also have the potential to contribute useful data.

Consistent with the approach taken by the Climate Change Convention, the GFOI will assist governments in processing and analyzing data using the carbon-estimation models and standards that they decide are best suited to their needs. At the same time, it will ensure that the results are fully comparable and interchangeable no matter which of the agreed methodologies is used. In situ, or ground-based observations, are being gathered at the test sites in each of the national demonstrators to calibrate and verify the models.

Participants in GEO’s forest activities can already share images, photos, in-situ data, models as well as results via an on-line platform contributed by Google.

It is widely recognized that healthy forests are critical for human well-being. They support local communities and provide numerous essential ecosystem services, including clean air, flood control, biodiversity protection, food and medicines, materials and carbon storage.