How accurately may we project tropical forest-cover change? A validation of a forward-looking baseline for REDD
The Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) mechanism of a future post-2012 global climate-change treaty would aim to give incentive to tropical countries to reduce deforestation and thus forest-carbon emissions. It would do so by crediting tropical countries for reducing deforestation relative to a baseline scenario describing carbon emissions and removals from forest-cover change expected in the absence of REDD+. Defining a credible and accurate baseline is both critical and challenging. One approach considered promising is spatial modelling to project forest-cover change on the basis of historical trends; yet few such projections have been validated at a national scale. We develop and validate a novel GEOMOD projection of forest-cover change in Panama over 2000–2008, based on trends over 1990–2000 and 25 drivers of forest-cover change. Compared with the actual landscape of 2008, our projection is 85.2% accurate at a 100-m pixel resolution. More error is attributable to the location of projected forest (8.6%) than to its area (6.2%). Accuracy was least where forest regeneration predominated (80%), and greatest where deforestation predominated (90%). Despite the sophistication of our projection, it is slightly less accurate than if we had assumed no forest-cover change over 2000–2008. We identify factors limiting projection accuracy, including the complexity of forest-cover change, the spatial variability of forest-carbon density, and the relatively small area of change at the national scale. We conclude that, with the exception of contexts where forest-cover change is significant and straightforward and where forest-carbon density relatively uniform (e.g., agricultural frontiers), spatially projected baselines are of limited value for REDD+ – their accuracy is too limited given their relative lack of transparency. Simpler, relatively coarse scale, retrospective baselines are recommended instead. âº We spatially project forest change for Panama, and validate projection accuracy. âº The projection misses more forest change than it captures. âº For 2000–2008, the projection is less accurate than the presumption of no change. âº Forest regeneration is especially elusive to accurate projection. âº We recommend against national projections to define REDD reference emission levels.