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Published: 18 April 2013

Prevent deforestation with smarter satellite choice

More than one billion people in the tropics depend on forests for their livelihood — yet current systems that monitor forest degradation are described as being ‘too sparse and too slow’ by leading environmental academics, in the latest edition of the Nature science journal.

The University of Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy (along with colleagues from UCL and the University of Leicester) are urging government policy-makers to back new satellite systems to monitor and protect the world's forests. The REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) working group of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets in Bonn, Germany, later this month to consider proposals for a new strategy that will be capable of mapping tropical forests to a sufficient standard.

Recommendations from the academics include radar satellites to spot illegal logging and optical satellites managed by a ground crew who constantly monitor forests to capture seasonal changes.

“The tropics cover almost half of the Earth’s land area, yet basic decisions have yet to be made on what observation systems should be used,” says Professor Jim Lynch from the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey. “We are urging policy-makers to back the right satellites and strategies to monitor and save the world’s forests.”

UN statistics show that millions of hectares of forests are lost every year due to deforestation and forest degradation. As well as the environmental cost, studies show that illegal logging is worth between US$30 billion and $100 billion annually, costing governments billions of dollars a year in lost timber and carbon credits, as well as around $10 billion in tax income.