A landmark 1998 decree established a goal of restoring the country’s forest cover to 1940s levels by 2010 through reforesting three million hectares for timber production and two million for reserves. Nearly a decade later, Viet Nam went on to become one of the nine original national programmes to join the UN-REDD+ global initiative.
One of its tasks as a UN-REDD+ Partner Country was constructing a forest reference (emission) level (FREL/FRL), which is a benchmark of the amount of greenhouse gases its forests had released into —or removed from— the atmosphere in the recent past. Reference levels are used to assess REDD+ performance, often in the context of results-based payments.
But what happens when past efforts to curb emissions have set the bar so high that it is unlikely to be surpassed? This is precisely the issue Vietnamese experts had to address in the construction of its national reference level, according to Dr. Vu Tan Phuong, Director of the Department of Training and International Cooperation at the Vietnamese Academy of Forest Sciences.
MAKING SENSE OF HISTORICAL DATA
The large-scale reforestation programme that wrapped up in 2010 might be difficult to outperform in the coming years, both due to financial aspects and to the now reduced area for tree planting, notes the FREL/FRL document Viet Nam submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2016.
“Viet Nam should not be ‘penalized’ with a FREL/FRL that sets the country for positive performance only if it surpasses such past efforts, a performance difficult to be achieved in the future,” says the submission. As a result, the country proposed a downward adjustment of its reference level to reflect this expected deviation from historical data, says Dr. Vu Tan Phuong.
The adjustment is based on the assumption that the reforestation programme met 75 percent of its goals, but experts aim to gather and validate data at provincial level to assess the actual area of reforestation. This will allow for a more accurate adjustment in future resubmissions of the reference level.
“The complexity of forest types —as many as 12—, the availability of satellite data and assessing the accuracy of activity data were other challenges we faced in constructing the FREL/FRL,” says Dr. Vu Tan Phuong. Unlike other countries, Viet Nam has been producing forest cover maps since 1991 and has an abundance of data on how the landscape has changed. But there is a flip side to it.
The satellite imageries used to create the various maps changed over time, and so did the very notion of what a forest is. “Viet Nam has made efforts to harmonize these maps, making them compatible and consistent over time by applying the same forest definition and a harmonized forest classification system,” notes the FREL/FRL submission. And this effort, which will continue into the future, has been worth it.
“The process of developing the FREL/FRL has helped us build our technical capacity to meet international standards and to better coordinate our ministries and agencies,” says Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy, Deputy Director of the National Steering Committee Office for the Target Programme on Sustainable Forest Development and REDD+ Implementation.
A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
Viet Nam’s FREL/FRL includes all REDD+ activities –deforestation, degradation, reforestation, restoration, conservation of forest carbon stock and sustainable management of forests. For experts involved in the FREL/FRL submission, the full inclusion of REDD+ activities matters because it reduces the risk of leakage of emission reductions from one activity to another —for example, if conservation of an area leads to deforestation of another one, instead.
The country has gone a long way since it joined the UN-REDD+ Programme, and it now plans to update its FREL/FREL with better data, and to measure and report the results of REDD+ implementation to be able to access results-based payments.
“REDD+ totally fits into our strategy for climate change mitigation, sustainable development and forest protection, which includes payments for ecosystem services such as carbon-stocking,” says Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy. From her perspective, the next few years will bring even more opportunities to further integrate climate, development and environmental goals for a more sustainable future for her country.
Author: Gloria Pallares
Freelance Journalist for the UN-REDD+ Programme