New technology aims to track carbon in each tree and strengthen carbon market integrity

  • Climate scientists and data engineers have developed a new digital platform, which they say is the first global tool to accurately calculate the carbon stored in every tree on the planet.
  • Built on two decades of research and development, nonprofit organization CTrees’ new platform uses artificial intelligence satellite datasets to give users a near real-time picture of carbon storage and emissions from forests around the world.
  • With protecting and restoring forests at the heart of international climate action efforts, CTrees is set to officially launch at COP27 in November, with the overarching goal of creating an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability for climate policy initiatives that rely on forests to offset carbon emissions are dependent .
  • While forest experts broadly welcome the new platform, they also highlight the risk of only evaluating forest restoration and conservation projects based on the amount of carbon sequestered, which can sometimes be a red herring when it comes to promoting truly sustainable and equitable forest management reach.

Users of a new digital platform from non-profit organization CTrees can track carbon stored and emitted in the world’s forests in near real time. The platform is based on two decades of research and development by a team of world-leading climate scientists and data engineers. It is touted as the first-ever global system to calculate the amount of carbon in every tree on the planet.

“Forests are extremely important for mitigating climate change because they absorb a large portion of the carbon in the atmosphere annually,” says Sassan Saatchi, principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who works with colleagues in the US, Brazil, Denmark and France the platform worked together, said Mongabay.

However, because trees are so efficient at storing carbon dioxide, they release large amounts of carbon back into the atmosphere when forests are damaged, felled or burned. Recent studies have shown that many forests are nearing a tipping point that will affect 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 important impact on atmospheric carbon, forest conservation and restoration have become important components of efforts to mitigate climate change through climate policy initiatives that rely on forests to offset carbon emissions. But until now, the world has lacked a globally consistent and transparent means of quantifying and tracking forest carbon.

The new CTrees platform now fills that gap, Saatchi said. It’s a “game changer,” he said, for the world’s governments, investors and organizations 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 global, state-of-the-art measurement and monitoring system. Until now, this technology has not been available for carbon markets and has been limited for climate policy makers.”

The new platform is set to be officially launched at COP27 in November this year, when world leaders gather in Egypt to discuss progress on national climate commitments. Knowing exactly how much carbon forests are emitting or sequestering will be crucial for decision-makers involved in calculating each country’s nationally determined contribution 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 a highly accurate, up-to-date view of the carbon impact of forest conservation and restoration at the local, national and global levels, the new platform can bring an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability to the arena, he said.

In addition to policymakers and investors, the platform is a boon to environmentalists and rights groups, who can access open-source data at global and national levels, enabling them to hold governments and organizations accountable for their commitments.

Evergreen Forest
Overall, global forests are still a 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

Fine-scale accuracy and attention to detail

There are an estimated 3 trillion trees of 60,000 species on the planet. So tracking the carbon flux of forests around the world is a daunting task, but one that Saatchi says new technology can handle. “We used to have to take [airborne] Pictures and then draw lines around these individual trees to identify and separate them. …Now we’re doing it with cloud-based artificial intelligence and we can process terabytes of data in hours.”

The CTrees forest carbon monitoring system brings together carbon flux datasets dating back to the early 2000s with high-resolution artificial intelligence satellite data from a range of systems, including Planet, which has datasets up to 3 by 3 meters (10 by 10 feet) deliver ) resolution and other sources with a resolution of up to 0.5 x 0.5 meters (1.6 x 1.6 feet).

“This brings us down to the tree level,” Saatchi said, making it possible for individual trees outside of forest stands, such as in urban centers, to be included in the CO2 balance – a practice that has typically been lacking 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, patches of forest, plantations and tree planting projects.

The platform can also differentiate between natural forests and commercial plantations, whose deforestation cycle can be tracked. Such information is critical to assessing what types of forest investments could make the greatest impact, he said.

Global forest carbon map
CTrees map of carbon stored in forests worldwide in 2021. Image courtesy of CTrees

A boost to accountability when planting trees

Karen Holl, a recovery ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said tools that allow for rigorous, real-time monitoring of tree cover are critical to verifying that the world’s massive tree-planting effort is getting the desired results have an impact. This is because many tree planting organizations focus too much on the number of trees planted in the ground, rather than investing in long-term monitoring to ensure that the trees planted remain healthy in the future and stay alive.

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

Meredith Martin, assistant professor of forestry at North Carolina State University, said the lack of oversight is a big problem. She and her colleagues recently found that fewer than a fifth of organizations involved in tree planting in the tropics have a monitoring program, with even fewer measuring tree survival or the amount 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 benefits of reforestation efforts to the amount of carbon sequestered alone risks overlooking other important factors.

“Carbon doesn’t tell us anything about biodiversity or even the actual resilience of forests to climate change,” Martin Mongabay said in an email. “For example, we’re seeing new invasive pests and diseases spreading across the US that can wipe out individual tree species fairly quickly, so managing forests for diversity and functional redundancy may be more important in the long run than just focusing on the amount of carbon.” concentrate separately for a short time”.

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

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

Banner image: CTrees map of carbon stored in forests worldwide in 2021. Image courtesy of CTrees


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

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Artificial intelligence, carbon, carbon credits, carbon emissions, carbon market, carbon sequestration, conservation, conservation technology, environment, forest carbon, forests, conservation innovation, mapping, old growth forests, plantations, primary forests, rainforests, reforestation, satellite imagery, technology and conservation, trees, wildlife tech

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