New technology aims to track carbon in every tree, promoting carbon market integration

  • Climate scientists and data engineers have developed a new digital platform billed as the first-ever global tool for accurately calculating the carbon stored in every tree on the planet.
  • Founded over two decades of research and development, the new platform from non-profit CTrees leverages artificial intelligence-enabled satellite data sets to give users a near-real-time picture of forest carbon storage and emissions around the world.
  • With forest protection and restoration at the center of international efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, CTrees is scheduled to be officially launched at COP27 in November, with the overall goal of bringing an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability to forest-based climate policy initiatives to offset carbon emissions.
  • Forest experts broadly welcome the new platform, but they also stress the risks of evaluating forest restoration and conservation projects solely by the amount of carbon sequestered, which can sometimes be an excuse to achieve truly sustainable and equitable forest management.

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

“Forests are very important for mitigating climate change because they absorb a large portion of the carbon into the atmosphere annually,” Sasan Saatchi, chief scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who collaborated with colleagues in the United States, Brazil, Denmark and France to develop the platform, told Mongabay .

However, because trees are so effective at hiding carbon dioxide, they release massive amounts of carbon back into the atmosphere when forests are degraded, cut down, or burned. Recently studies showed that many forests are approaching a tipping point that is undermining their ability to store carbon, in parts of Southeast Asia and the Amazon Net carbon emissions are already due to multiple human-caused stressors.

Pine forest, United States
Pine trees in the Sierra Nevada, United States, photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Because of this significant impact on atmospheric carbon, forest conservation and restoration has become a major component of climate change mitigation efforts through climate policy initiatives that rely on forests to offset carbon emissions. But until now, the world has lacked globally consistent and transparent means of measuring and tracking forest carbon.

Saatchi said the new CTrees platform is now filling that gap. He said it was a “game changer” for world governments, investors and organizations to make better science-based decisions. “The transition to carbon neutrality requires careful accounting,” he said. “To truly assess the benefits of carbon reduction efforts, market and policy actors need a modern global system of measurement and monitoring. 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 scheduled to be officially launched at COP27 in November, when world leaders will gather in Egypt to discuss progress towards national climate commitments. Accurate knowledge of the amount of forest carbon released or trapped will be key to decision makers involved in calculating the NDCs of individual countries under the Paris Agreement.

Saatchi said CTrees’ science-based approach provides a much-needed update to the current method for accounting for forest carbon, which relies on nationally reported numbers that are often incomplete and inconsistent. By providing a high-resolution, up-to-date overview of the carbon footprints of forest conservation and restoration at the local, national and global levels, the new platform can bring unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability to the scene, he said.

Along with policy makers and investors, the platform is a boon for environmental advocates and rights groups that have access to open source data globally and nationally, empowering them to hold governments and organizations accountable for their commitments.

evergreen forest
Global forests remain a net carbon sink, but some forest areas have turned into a net emitter due to degradation, deforestation, rising temperatures, and many other threats. Image courtesy of CTrees

Measurement accuracy and detail

There are an estimated 3 trillion trees of 60,000 species on the planet. Therefore, tracking the flow of carbon in forests around the world is a huge task, but one Saatchi said new technology can tackle. “In the old days, we had to take [airborne] Then draw lines around these individual trees to identify and separate them. … Now, we do this using cloud-based AI and we can process terabytes of data in hours.”

The Forest Carbon Monitoring System (CTrees) combines carbon flux data sets dating back to the early 2000s with high-resolution AI-assisted satellite data from a range of systems, including planetwhich provides datasets with a resolution of up to 3 by 3 meters (10 by 10 feet) and other sources down to a resolution of 0.5 by 0.5 meters (1.6 by 1.6 feet).

“This brings us to the tree level,” Saatchi said, allowing individual trees outside forest kiosks, such as in urban centers, to be included in the carbon calculation — a practice that is now often lacking. A rigorous approach to carbon accounting makes it possible to estimate and sequester emissions not only at the state level, but also at finer levels such as individual jurisdictions, forest patches, farms, and tree-planting projects.

The platform can also distinguish between natural forests and commercial plantations, in which the cutting cycle can be traced. He said that such information was vital for assessing the types of forest investments that could have the greatest impact.

Carbon map of global forests
CTrees map of carbon stored in forests globally during 2021. Image courtesy of CTrees

Strengthening accountability for tree planting

Tools that enable careful and rigorous monitoring of tree cover are necessary to verify whether the world’s massive tree-planting efforts are having the desired effects, said Karen Hall, a restoration ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She said this is because many organizations involved in tree planting focus excessively on the number of trees placed in the ground, rather than investing in long-term monitoring to ensure that the trees planted remain healthy and vibrant well into the future.

“There are many examples of tree-planting efforts that initially failed, and sometimes the same areas are planted year after year with trees counted multiple times,” Hall told Mongabay in an email. “Monitoring on most of these reforestation projects is short-term (1-3 years) or non-existent. Furthermore…small secondary deforestation often takes place within a decade or two.”

The lack of monitoring is a major concern, said Meredith Martin, associate professor of forestry at North Carolina State University. She and her colleagues recently have found Fewer than one-fifth of organizations involved in planting trees in the tropics have a monitoring program, with fewer trees surviving or 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 down to the amount of carbon sequestered alone risks overlooking other important factors.

“Carbon doesn’t tell us anything about biodiversity or even about forests’ actual resilience to climate change,” Martin told Mongabay in an email. “For example, we are seeing the spread of new invasive pests and diseases across the United States that can wipe out individual tree species very quickly, so managing forests for diversity and functional redundancy may be more important in the long term than simply focusing on the amount of carbon in the long run. short”.

Mark Ashton, professor of agroforestry and forest ecology at Yale University, said the problems of forest loss and degradation are unlikely to be solved through technological solutions alone. “The real solutions to forest restoration and sustainable use are social, cultural and economic solutions,” Ashton told Mongabay in an email. “Better forest management is obtained when you turn your focus to solving human problems in forest lands that are subject to deforestation and degradation.”

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

Banner picture: CTrees map of carbon stored in forests globally during 2021. Image courtesy of CTrees


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Xu, L., Saatchi, S. S., Yang, Y., Yu, Y., Pongratz, J., Bloom, A. A., … Schimel, D. (2021). Changes in living global terrestrial biomass during the twenty-first century. science progressAnd the 7(27) doi:10.1126 / sciadv.abe9829

Martin, MB, Woodbury, DJ, Dorosky, DA, Nagely, E, Sturas, M, Cook Patton, SC, … Ashton, MS (2021). People plant trees for benefit more than biodiversity or carbon. biological conservationAnd the 261109224. doi:10.1016 / j.biocon.2021.109224

Caroline Kwan is a writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter Tweet embed

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