New technology aims to track carbon in every tree and bolster carbon market integrity

  • Climatologists and data engineers have developed a new digital platform touted as the world’s first-ever tool to accurately calculate the carbon stored in every tree on the planet.
  • Founded on two decades of research and development, non-profit CTrees’ new platform leverages artificial intelligence-powered satellite datasets to give users a near real-time picture of forest carbon storage and emissions in the world.
  • With forest protection and restoration at the center of international climate mitigation efforts, CTrees is set to be officially launched at COP27 in November, with the overall aim of bringing an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability to climate change initiatives. climate policy that rely on forests to offset carbon emissions. .
  • Forestry experts generally welcome the new platform, but also point to the risk of evaluating forest restoration and conservation projects based solely on the amount of carbon sequestered, which can sometimes be a red herring to achieve a truly sustainable and equitable forest management.

Users of a new digital platform from nonprofit CTrees will be able to track carbon stored and emitted in the world’s forests in near real time. The platform is the result of two decades of research and development by a team of the world’s leading climatologists and data engineers. It is presented as the very first global system to calculate the amount of carbon in each tree on the planet.

“Forests are extremely important for mitigating climate change because they absorb a large proportion of the carbon in the atmosphere each year,” said Sassan Saatchi, principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who collaborated with colleagues in the United States. States, Brazil, Denmark and France to develop the platform, Mongabay told.

However, because trees are so efficient at storing carbon dioxide, they release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere when forests are degraded, felled or burned. Recent studies have shown that many forests are approaching a tipping point that compromises their ability to store carbon, with parts of Southeast Asia and the Amazon already being net carbon emitters due to multiple human-induced stressors.

Pine trees in the Sierra Nevada, USA Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Because of this considerable influence on atmospheric carbon, forest conservation and restoration have become major components of climate change mitigation efforts through climate policy initiatives that rely on forests to offset climate change. carbon emissions. But until now, the world has lacked globally consistent and transparent ways to quantify and track forest carbon.

The new CTrees platform now fills that gap, Saatchi said. It’s a “game changer,” he said, for governments, investors and organizations around the world to make better science-based decisions. “The transition to carbon neutrality requires accurate accounting,” he said. “To truly assess the benefits of carbon reduction efforts, market and policy actors need a state-of-the-art global system to measure and monitor. Until now, this technology has not been available to carbon markets, and only on a limited basis to climate policy makers.

The new platform is due to be officially launched at COP27 in November, when world leaders meet in Egypt to discuss progress towards national climate commitments. Knowing exactly how much carbon forests emit or sequester will be critical for policymakers involved in calculating each country’s Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement.

Saatchi said CTrees’ science-based approach provides a much-needed update to the current method of forest carbon accounting, which relies on nationally reported figures that are often incomplete and inconsistent. By providing up-to-date, high-accuracy insight into the carbon implications of forest conservation and restoration at local, national and global levels, the new platform can bring unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability to the arena. , did he declare.

In addition to policymakers and investors, the platform is a boon to environmental activists and advocacy groups who can access open source global and national data, allowing them to hold governments and organizations accountable for their commitments.

evergreen forest
The world’s forests are still a global net carbon sink, but some forest areas have become net emitters due to degradation, deforestation, rising temperatures and many other threats. Image courtesy of CTrees

Large-scale precision and detail

There are approximately 3 trillion trees of 60,000 species on the planet. Therefore, tracking the flow of forest carbon around the world is a huge task, but one that Saatchi said new technology can handle. “Previously, we had to take [airborne] images, then draw lines around these single trees to identify and separate them. … Now we do it with cloud-based artificial intelligence and we can process terabytes of data in hours.

The CTrees forest carbon monitoring system merges carbon flux datasets dating back to the early 2000s with high-resolution satellite data enabled by artificial intelligence from a range of systems, including Planet, which provide data sets up to 3 by 3 meters (10 feet by 10 feet). ) and other sources that go down to a resolution of 0.5 by 0.5 meters (1.6 by 1.6 ft).

“That gets us to the tree level,” Saatchi said, allowing individual trees outside of forest stands, such as in urban centers, to be included in carbon accounting — a practice typically absent until now. The fine-scale approach to carbon accounting allows emissions and sequestration to be estimated not only at the country level, but also at much finer scales such as individual jurisdictions, forest plots, plantations and projects planting trees.

The platform can also distinguish between natural forests and commercial plantations, whose cutting cycle can be tracked. This information is essential for assessing what types of forestry investments could have the most impact, he said.

Global forest carbon map
CTrees map of carbon stored in the world’s forests in 2021. Image courtesy of CTrees

A boost to accountability in tree planting

Karen Holl, a restoration ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said tools that enable rigorous, real-time monitoring of tree cover are key to checking whether the world’s massive tree-growing efforts have the desired effects. Indeed, many organizations involved in tree planting focus too much on the number of trees planted, she said, rather than investing in long-term monitoring to ensure that planted trees remain healthy and alive in the future.

“There are many examples of tree-planting efforts that failed initially, and sometimes the same areas are planted year after year, with trees being counted multiple times,” Holl told Mongabay in an email. “The monitoring of most of these reforestation projects is short-term (1 to 3 years) or non-existent. Also…young secondary forests are often cleared within a decade or two.

Meredith Martin, assistant professor of forestry at North Carolina State University, said the lack of monitoring is a major concern. She and her colleagues recently found that less than a fifth of organizations engaged in tree planting in the tropics have a monitoring program, with even fewer measuring tree survival or amounts of carbon stored.

Martin acknowledged that platforms like CTrees are powerful tools for promoting transparency and accountability in the sector, but noted that reducing the merits of reforestation efforts to the amount of carbon sequestered alone risks overlooking other important factors.

“Carbon tells us nothing about biodiversity or even about the actual resilience of forests to climate change,” Martin told Mongabay in an email. “For example, we’re seeing that new invasive pests and diseases are spreading across the United States and can wipe out individual tree species quite quickly, so managing forests for diversity and functional redundancy may be more important at long term than focusing only on the amount of carbon sequestered in the short term.

Mark Ashton, professor of silviculture and forest ecology at Yale University, said the problems of forest loss and degradation are unlikely to be solved by technological solutions alone. “The real solutions to the recovery and sustainable use of forests are social, cultural and economic,” Ashton told Mongabay in an email. “Better forest management is achieved when you focus on solving human problems in forest lands that experience deforestation and degradation.”

Martin echoed Ashton’s call for more human-centric solutions. “Ultimately, I think a lot more attention should be paid to listening to local communities and stakeholders to support forest stewardship in a truly sustainable way,” she said.

Banner image: CTrees map of carbon stored in the world’s forests in 2021. Image courtesy of CTrees


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Carolyn Cowan is a writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11

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