Since March 2020, we have witnessed numerous parallels between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, including a lack of cohesive, coordinated global intervention and a laissez-faire response to a global emergency.
Inadequate government response to the pandemic has led to preventable deaths from a highly contagious virus, just as inadequate government responses to the climate crisis could result in exacerbated effects by drought, fires or flooding as well as rising food insecurity. These risks are fast approaching their tipping points.
COVID-19 has inundated our lives with numbers and social media updates to the point of statistical overload, a phenomenon WHO refers to as an ‘infodemic.’ The flood of information has occasionally caused the public to question the veracity of certain claims, which in turn has hampered effective public health responses. Nonetheless, the vast availability of data encourages scientists and citizen scientists across the world to disseminate models, ideas and scenarios for better progress against the virus.
Open Data for Forests
The pandemic reinforces the importance of data for interpretation and dissemination. It is a resource that needs to be carefully curated, because leaders, whether in health or in climate science, need to make informed decisions in order to respond to global agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Likewise, citizens will need assurance and transparency to act as individuals and communities, and to advocate for data-driven policy development.
Likewise, forest data transparency is key to supporting higher levels of ambition for the roles of forests in climate change action. Progress in National Forest Monitoring Systems (NFMS) in the past ten years has catalyzed solutions for forests and climate action, such as for REDD+. In many countries, greater transparency of countries’ forest-sector data and information has resulted in improved national decision-making, and for the first time, detailed and transparent forest data has been reported internationally, with 50 countries having submitted forest reference emissions levels to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Still, countries’ efforts towards forest data transparency must be strengthened. Under the Enhanced Transparency Framework of the Paris Agreement, robust data collection is central for reporting on emissions and removals, as well as for tracking the progress of Nationally Determined Contributions. An NFMS that is transparent, reliable, relevant, accessible, and sustainable can support climate action on the ground.
What lessons can forest monitoring practitioners take from the ongoing pandemic?
- Sharing openly can flatten the curve: With COVID-19, countries that have embraced data acquisition through frequent testing and have been transparent about infection rates have mostly succeeded in flattening the curve of infections. In Germany, testing, tracing, and transparency are credited with building public trust. Likewise, improved data availability combined with transparency could catalyze more collaborative solutions to the climate crisis that could equally buy some precious time to achieve the terms of the Paris Agreement.
- Climate policies need up-to-date and integrated information: Data sets can be shared at unprecedented speed. While the availability of COVID-19 related data has often overwhelmed data consumers and resulted in conflicting guidance, frequent and integrated forest data is likely to enhance public engagement and collaboration on relevant solutions for forests.
- Public money means public information: Enormous financial resources have been poured into COVID-19 monitoring. Likewise, national forest data is primarily collected through taxpayer finances, either through national or international cooperation funds. Greater public financing of large-scale data collection and sharing ultimately means greater information available to the public, enhancing public trust and increasing opportunities for investors and researchers. Open, transparent, and reliable forest data can also enhance private investment, which is urgently needed to trigger transformation of forest and land management for climate action and other multiple benefits. Accurate and reliable forest data created from public funds needs to be open and accessible to the public.
- Overcoming obstacles to sharing: Under the pandemic, open data has accelerated science, but also introduced vulnerabilities. Both media and politicians have sometimes reported promising results before they have been scientifically validated. Among the obstacles to sharing forest data is the concern of inadequate use of the data and lack of intellectual property recognition. Barely 14% of researchers in 2018 shared their data in repositories. Yet, twisting the tragedy of the commons, while 74% researchers value others’ data sharing as beneficial to their own research, both scientists and governments show reluctance to share their own data.
To overcome this resistance, legal agreements that release individual contributors from conflicts with the institutions involved in data sharing are needed, with updated and harmonized measures to ensure anonymity of legal subjects and/or spatial coordinates. Further, data ownership recognition standards should encourage data sharing. Government officials and researchers need to follow the FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) guiding principles for data management and stewardship, thereby making the case that in the end the benefits of sharing outweigh the disadvantages.
Forest Open Data Platforms and FAO’s Support
Some existing microdata platforms, such as the Global Forest Biodiversity Initiative GFBI, largely compile and share global field data for academic research and require strict rules on confidentiality and control of users. Yet, forest-related information still remains largely scattered across multiple platforms. FAO is working with UN Member States to overcome obstacles to open forest data. Our current efforts include:
- the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020, which provides country validated forest data, accessible through an interactive platform and dashboards.
- the Hand-in-Hand geospatial platform launched recently, representing a major step towards accessible and transparent cross-sectoral geospatial data across agriculture, fisheries, and forestry.
- a set of free and open source tools (Open Foris) developed by FAO to facilitate flexible and efficient data collection, analysis, and reporting helping to enhance forest monitoring at national level.
- A new FAO project ‘Building global capacity to increase transparency in the forest sector (CBIT-Forest)’ to establish a Global Field Forest Observation Repository with a view to harmonizing legal assurances in data confidentiality, redistribution policies, and quality assurance conditions meeting international data documentation protocols. Microdata inclusion on this platform would contribute to increased standardization, accessibility and data usage.
A New, Transparent Normal?
COVID-19 has increased awareness about the power of data sharing. We hope that this motivates governments and forest monitoring practitioners to share forest data. At the same time, it is important that open databases follow standards to minimize misuse and misinterpretation. We believe that open forest data can strengthen our collective effort to identify and apply solutions for forests as a key response to the climate emergency.
FAO’s support to forest monitoring aims to strengthen data openness standards, while solving conflicts with data protection and confidentiality. In order to achieve reusability, clear and accessible data use licenses must exist. Legal certainty through license to redistribute agreements, ensure data robustness alongside data sensitivity. A Global Field Forest Observation Repository to facilitate data sharing of forest microdata to technicians and academics while supporting international reporting requirements across countries, is a step towards fostering that necessary transparency.