Forest monitoring

The degree to which the countries in the tropics are capable of measuring deforestation, forest degradation and emissions, varies. Some countries have almost no data on the forest and changes in the forest cover, while other countries have very good systems.

Many countries have highly competent people, good equipment and excellent data but are lacking a coherent and coordinated measurement system. Good examples of these varying degrees of MRV capacity are found among the countries Norway collaborates with concerning reduced deforestation.

In order for tropical countries to be paid for reduced greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), a large-scale commitment is needed to develop good measurement systems, as well as a willingness to share the information so that it can be checked. Having a functioning National Forest Monitoring System is a requirement for receiving REDD+ payments. Norway is one of the world's largest contributors to this work. Norway's partner countries are working purposefully to improve their measurement systems.

Read more about MRV in the international negotiations.


Brazil is world renowned for its excellent satellite measurement system for deforestation in the Amazon. Each year the Brazilian space centre submits reports on how much forest is disappearing, and the payment from Norway to Brazil is then determined on the basis of how low the deforestation is. Brazil has several measurement systems, and can also monitor large deforestation incidents almost daily. This is important because it means that the police and foresters can respond quickly and stop illegal deforestation. Brazil is working to expand the system to cover the entire country. With Norwegian support of the Amazon Fund, Brazil is implementing a major project to obtain even better knowledge on areas such as how much carbon is contained in the rainforest, to obtain more precise measurements of the quantity of greenhouse gases being emitted due to deforestation.


Mexico is also known for having a good forest monitoring system. The country has carried out a very comprehensive forest inventory, and therefore has a great deal of information on different types of forests, greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and similar. With support from Norway and Germany, Mexico has developed its own satellite measurement system that delivers figures on a regular basis. Mexico has excellent and verifiable information on what is happening with the forests in the country. Using this experience and expertise, Mexico is providing guidance and assistance to other countries in the Meso-American region, allowing them to improve their forest monitoring and participate in REDD+.


Indonesia has competent people and institutions, but is lacking a coherent and coordinated monitoring system (MRV system). The climate and forest agreement with Norway has launched a major effort to improve the basis of the data and coordination of the data. When such a system becomes operational, Indonesia will be one step closer to being able to submit transparent greenhouse gas accounts for its forests, and be paid by Norway if they can document that the emissions from deforestation are declining.


Guyana had neither a satellite system nor a forest inventory when the country entered into a forest partnership with Norway in 2009. One of the principal parts of the agreement between the countries is that Guyana shall build up its MRV system through a stepwise approach. This work has gone very well, and the country has already submitted reports on deforestation for five years. These reports have also been independently verified. Every year the country takes new steps towards a complete MRV system of high standard, and is an example showing that MRV can be quickly developed if there are resources and political will.


There are substantial challenges in connection with building up good systems for measuring, reporting and verifying greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. How challenging it is, and what the main challenges are, varies widely from country to country. But a brief summary of the main challenges are: 

  • Good and open institutions – Since forest monitoring is important to many parts of society, there are often many institutions that wish to have the main responsibility for it. This can result in protracted political battles for the responsibility for MRV, which can delay the development of the systems. In some cases the institutions responsible are also reluctant to offer access to the underlying data, which makes it difficult to check their official figures on deforestation and forest degradation. Information is power, and access to information is a prerequisite for citizen empowerment. Lacking information and insight into deforestation patterns can be used to marginalize vulnerable groups, such as local communities and indigenous peoples that depend on the forests for their livelihood.
  • Political will – There is a lot of money to be made from destroying the tropical forests. A country may therefore have strong stakeholder groups who do not wish to improve forest monitoring. These may be groups involved in illegal logging, or commercial interests who reap large profits from expanding their operations in areas where they destroy many hectares of forest, and therefore do not want a focus on deforestation. These enterprises can have substantial political influence. In some cases the decision makers themselves are involved in the deforestation.  Therefore it may be difficult to pass the political resolutions that are necessary to build up good MRV systems.
  • Technology and methods – Sometimes it can be so difficult to precisely measure the deforestation and forest degradation that completely new methods need to be developed. This is demanding in terms of time and resources. When new technology becomes available, for example by launching a new satellite, it also takes a long time to test whether the new technology can be used effectively to measure forests.
  • Capacity to use the methods – It is not sufficient that methods and technology exist. The countries must also have people with the right expertise, and equipment that makes it possible to use the methods. Countries that lack this capacity use time on training, obtaining computer equipment with the right software and similar. This may slow the development of MRV.
  • Costs – The best technology is often very expensive, and this is also a reason why the MRV systems in many countries are not good enough. If a country does not have much capacity either, it is also necessary, but expensive, to invest in education and training.

Norwegian support for systems to measure deforestation and emissions

The possibilities for measuring deforestation and its associated emissions in countries with tropical forests vary greatly. Common to all, is that there is always something that could have been done to improve the MRV systems, whether it is getting started with the basic processes, or taking some of the final steps in creating good MRV systems. Since the needs vary greatly, Norway supports this work in many different ways. The support is provided through three main channels:

  • Bilateral support – Norway supports the development of MRV systems in the countries with which we have bilateral cooperation on reduced deforestation. The support differs from country to country, depending on what type of capacity and competence the country already has.
  • Multinational institutions – Much of the support to MRV is provided through the UN programme for reduced deforestation, and through the World Bank. The UN programme for reduced deforestation builds capacity in the countries that have joined the programme, while the World Bank largely contributes with financial support to MRV. Norway also supports initiatives for better access to satellite images through the Norwegian Space Centre and the Global Forest Observation Initiative (GFOI).
  • Civil society and method development – Through the support scheme for civil society Norway provides support to many organisations that work with method development, skills development and demonstration activities. The support to civil society is important in many ways, for example as a critical verifier of official information, and as a breeding ground for new innovative ideas and solutions.


What information is needed to measure deforestation?

To draw up greenhouse gas accounts for the forests, you need two main types of information. These main types are usually called activity data and emission factors.

  • Activity data – Activity data are information on the size of the areas affected by a given activity. If we wish to measure deforestation in an area, and it turns out that an area of 1000 hectares of forest (a football pitch has a maximum size of 1 hectare) has been lost, then we say that the activity data for deforestation is 1000 hectares.
  • Emission factors – Emission factors indicate the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted as a result of the activity data. Emission factors may be very general or very specific, depending on how much is known about the forest in the area in which deforestation is being measured. An example of a general emission factor is to say for example that all deforestation in an area results in emissions of 100 tonnes of carbon for each hectare that is lost. If you have better information then you can be more specific and say that deforestation of an old-growth forest causes emissions of for example 300 tonnes of carbon, while deforestation of a plantation generates 50 tonnes of carbon emissions. 

Greenhouse gas accounts are generally expressed in terms of CO2 equivalents. When the carbon atoms stored in the trees are released to air due to for example a fire or decomposition, they join with two oxygen atoms and form CO2 molecules. It is the CO2 molecules that are contributing to global warming, and that is why CO2, and not just carbon, forms the basis of the result-based payments under REDD+. Other greenhouse gases than CO2 may also be emitted during deforestation, and the greenhouse effect of these emissions is converted into the amount of CO2 that would have caused the same greenhouse effect. It is easier, for example, to compare results from different areas when you can use the same unit of measurement, even if the gases can be released in different mixes, and that is why the unit of measurement used is "CO2 equivalents". 

Satellite monitoring and local measurements

When you want to collect information on activity data you are looking for information on the size of the areas that are changed. How you find this information will depend on the size of the area that you are studying. In so far as REDD+ is usually carried out at a national scale or in entire provinces, you need information on large areas of land. In this context remote measurement is the most generally used method. When using remote measurement, you are using images taken by aerial photographs and satellites. Satellite images are most common, but in the past aerial photographs were often used simply because there were not so many satellites. If you have satellite images of an area taken at two different points in time, you can compare these images and identify where there are changes i.e. deforestation/activity data. There are a number of different types of satellite images that can be used, and what you choose to use will depend on requirements for precision, economics, climatic conditions etc.

Another benefit of using satellite images is that you can see exactly where the changes are occurring. Brazil uses satellite data to quickly detect illegal deforestation so that the police can respond. Further information on Brazil's efforts to reduce deforestation is available here.

However not all the information on changes is easily obtained from satellite images. For example it may be difficult to measure the extent of the emissions from forest degradation that is due to firewood collection and logging activity. Therefore the locals who live in and beside the forests are often involved in monitoring the extent of such influences on the forest. This is generally called local-based forest monitoring. Such local measurements are often carried out by academic centres or by central forest authorities as well. Regardless, the best result is obtained by using a combination of remote measurement and local measurements, since these can then complement each other.

How much carbon?

To obtain exact information on emission factors it is necessary to visit the forest and carry out the measurements. There are separate measurement methods for finding out how much carbon is stored in the trees, how much is found in the roots, how much there is in the soil etc. Based on measurements that have been taken previously, you can often measure for example the trees' heights and trunk diameters, and then apply mathematical formulae to calculate the carbon content. In areas where there are no such formulae, you can develop them by gathering some trees and plants, measuring their carbon content and then using this to develop new formulae that apply to the area you are studying.

Normally a network of measurement areas is drawn up, so that there is enough information to make good calculations of emission factors in all the types of forests in a country - this is called a forest inventory. In addition to emission factors, a forest inventory can provide information on quantities of important tree species, how vulnerable the forest is to forest degradation, for example, and a number of other things that are useful to a country's resource management. A forest inventory can also provide information that is useful in calculating activity data, but most countries still want a satellite system as well, because this gives more information on exactly where the changes are occurring.

As with activity data, local-based forest monitoring plays an important role in the work of reducing the emissions from deforestation. It can be very time and resource intensive to develop good emission factors, and the UN's panel on climate change has therefore prepared some standard emission factors that can be used in the absence of other information. These are imprecise, but may be useful in early phases of REDD+.


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