• Forest degradation;
  • REDD;
  • carbon emissions;
  • climate change;
  • tropical forestry

Almost all definitions generated through international consensus are imperfect. And the current definition of “forest” used by the Kyoto Protocol of the United Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is no exception. As rightly pointed out by Sasaki and Putz in their recent paper (Sasaki & Putz 2009), the current interval of ground cover value (between 10% and 30%) that defines a “forest” across all signatory countries to the Kyoto Protocol is prone to mask substantial removals of above ground carbon without noticeable changes in forest area. However, we disagree with the authors in that “lack of a universally agreed-upon definition of forest degradation will cause complications when REDD projects are implemented.” We argue instead that a “universal” definition of forest degradation per se is neither necessary nor desirable in the context of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) activities under the UNFCCC.

In 2003, the ninth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC adopted a global definition of forest degradation as “direct human induced long-term loss (persisting for X years or more) of at least Y% of forest carbon stocks (and forest values) since time (T) and not qualifying as deforestation” (Penman et al. 2003). Making this definition operational has been problematic ever since mostly because both X and Y have proven difficult to operationalize (Penman 2008). It is very likely that a definition on degradation will never be agreed upon in the context of UNFCCC negotiations as scientists and other stakeholders have yet to agree on what is a forest and what constitutes being degraded. They seem more successful, however, at defining gradients or progression of degradation in space and time (see Table S1). The emphasis should thus be on monitoring persistent declines of carbon stocks over time, based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) methodologies, and stratified for different activities that remove carbon from the forest and assuming no overall loss of forest cover (see, e.g., GOFC-GOLD 2008; Murdiyarso et al. 2008).

The main challenge is obviously to adequately define baseline carbon stocks and monitor their change over time (i.e., the carbon accounting period) to assess decline. Sasaki & Putz (2009) rightly advocate the use of remote sensing for monitoring carbon removal via selective timber harvesting over large areas. Yet quantifying carbon removal through “cryptic” (yet spatially pervasive) degradation such as low-intensity timber harvesting, fuelwood collection, small-scale mining, and understory thinning (Peres et al. 2006) will have to rely on direct monitoring. From the perspective of REDD activities we also need to make sure that we measure and monitor changes in carbon stocks over the landscape, accurately and cost-effectively enough, in order to detect changes. We agree with Sasaki & Putz (2009) that erosion of biodiversity and provision of ecosystem services in any REDD scheme should not be overlooked; but we do not have to worry now about new definitions of forest degradation. Furthermore, setting the minimum crown cover value to 40% as the authors suggest, may do little in making cryptic degradation go unnoticed.

Editor : Dr. Jos Barlow


  1. Top of page
  2. References
  3. Supporting Information
  • GOFC-GOLD. (2008) Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation in developing countries: a sourcebook of methods and procedures for monitoring, measuring and reporting. GOFC-GOLD Report version COP13–2. Natural Resources Canada, Alberta .
  • Murdiyarso, D., Skutsch M., Guariguata M. et al . (2008) How do we measure and monitor forest degradation? Pages 99106 in A.Angelsen, editor. Moving ahead with REDD. CIFOR, Bogor , Indonesia .
  • Penman, J. (2008) An exploration by the EU on methodological issues relating to reducing emissions from forest degradation in developing countries. UNFCCC Informal Meeting of Experts, Bonn , 20–21 October 2008. Available from: Accessed 3 August 2009.
  • Penman, J., Gytarsky M., Hiraishi T. et al . (2003) Good practice guidance for land use, land-use change and forestry. IPCC National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Programme and Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), Kanagawa, Japan. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Available from: Accessed 25 November 2008.
  • Peres, C.A., Barlow J., Laurance W. F. (2006) Detecting anthropogenic disturbance in tropical forests. Trend Ecol Evol 21, 227229.
  • Sasaki, N., Putz F.E. (2009) Critical need for new definitions of “forest” and “forest degradation” in global climate change agreements. Conserv Lett2, 226232.

Supporting Information

  1. Top of page
  2. References
  3. Supporting Information

Table S1 The list of 17 papers reported from the tropics in the ISI Web of Knowledge that contained the word “degradation” or “degraded” and “forest” in the title. Arranged in chronological order.

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CONL_75_sm_TableS1.doc59KSupporting info item

Please note: Wiley Blackwell is not responsible for the content or functionality of any supporting information supplied by the authors. Any queries (other than missing content) should be directed to the corresponding author for the article.