Should We Care About the Difference Between the Forest and the Trees?

How can we map deforestation and forest degradation in a way that distinguishes between a functioning forest and a simple group of trees?

Aerial shot of the forest canopy

From the air, a stand of trees and a living, breathing forest look an awful lot alike. But here’s the thing: trees alone do not a forest make.

Forests provide habitat for an array of species. They capture carbon, produce oxygen, supply wood and nourish communities. They’re robust, functional entities. In contrast, tree farms provide trees and carbon sequestration, but not in comparable ways.

So why does this differentiation matter? The policy known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) was designed to compensate countries for limiting greenhouse gas emissions by protecting their forests (compensation is usually in the form of carbon credits). And while that’s a step in the right direction, countries following this policy are estimating their carbon emissions based on mapping changes in tree coverage only. They are not interpreting their measurements based on the characteristics a “collection of trees” should have in order to be counted as a forest.

As a result, countries may be gathering data that includes stands of trees that don’t actually function as forests, when one of the end goals of REDD is to reduce emissions by leaving forests—and the benefits they bestow—intact. The problem lies in just how the accounting required by REDD policy is being implemented. Such accounting, by concentrating only on the carbon portion, is missing the crucial elements of functionality, resilience and sustainability that guarantee long-term forest health.

More accurate feedback on forest carbon emissions could be obtained through analysis of the status of forests as specifically defined, whole entities—instead of just tree coverage. To help accomplish this, WWF researchers are analyzing the tree cover data countries produce in a way that makes sense both from the perspective of carbon emissions and from the perspective of the characteristics of a true forest.

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues