Despite the economic and environmental significance of the world’s forests, we have limited data about them. Estimates of deforestation in tropical countries and rates of reforestation or afforestation in boreal and temperate countries are inconsistent. Accordingly, estimates of emissions released in deforestation vary widely and range from 7% to 17% of all sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The lack of good data severely hampers efforts to shape climate policy because it is difficult to model the role of forests both in the physical global carbon (C) cycle and in cost-effective regimes to abate GHG. Data limits strain the capacity of even the best models to estimate marginal cost functions for forest carbon (C) sequestration. It is technically possible to obtain better information, but for institutional and economic reasons these technologies have not yet been fully deployed. The emergence of carbon (C) trading or tax policy in which forest carbon (C) storage becomes valued would strengthen incentives to supply better data, as would nonmarket regulation if it elicited a shadow value of forest carbon (C) in substituting for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. “Geo-wiki” may provide a short-term solution to at least part of the data problem. The ultimate solution is the development of a comprehensive forest monitoring system involving remote sensing and on-the-ground truthing. This paper briefly discusses the role of forests in climate policy and then describes data gaps, the capability of technology to fill them, the limits of institutions and budgets in realizing this capability, and possible near-term solutions.

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