The new technology aims to trace the carbon in each tree, increase the integrity of the carbon market

  • Climate scientists and data engineers have developed a new digital platform heralded as the first ever global tool to accurately calculate the carbon stored in every tree on the planet.
  • Based on two decades of research and development, the new platform from nonprofit Ctrees leverages AI-enabled satellite datasets to provide users with a near-real-time picture of forest storage and carbon emissions across the country. world.
  • With forest protection and restoration at the heart of international climate mitigation efforts, Ctrees will be officially launched at COP27 in November, with the overall goal of bringing an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability to climate policy initiatives that build on forests to offset carbon emissions.
  • Forestry experts welcome the new platform, but also stress the risk of evaluating forest restoration and conservation projects solely on the basis of the amount of carbon sequestered, which can sometimes be a red herring to achieve truly sustainable forest management and fair.

Users of a new nonprofit Ctrees digital platform 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 world-leading climate scientists and data engineers. It is advertised as the first ever global system for calculating the amount of carbon in every tree on the planet.

“Forests are extremely important in mitigating climate change because they absorb an important part of the carbon in the atmosphere every year,” Sassan Saatchi, a senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has collaborated with colleagues in the United States, Brazil, Denmark and France to develop the platform, he told Mongabay.

However, because trees are so efficient at removing carbon dioxide, they release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere when forests are degraded, cut down 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 emitting carbon emissions due to multiple carbon-induced stressors. man.

The pines of the Sierra Nevada, USA Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Because of this strong influence on atmospheric carbon, forest conservation and restoration have become important components of climate change mitigation efforts through climate policy initiatives that rely on forests to offset carbon emissions. But until now, the world lacked a coherent and transparent global 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 governments, investors and organizations around the world 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 state-of-the-art global system for measurement and monitoring. Until now, this technology was not available to carbon markets and only on a limited basis to climate policy makers. ”

The new platform is expected to officially launch at COP27 in November, when world leaders gather in Egypt to discuss progress towards national climate commitments. Knowing exactly how much carbon forests emit or capture will be crucial for decision makers involved in calculating nationally determined contributions of individual countries under the Paris Agreement.

Saatchi said CTrees’ scientific approach offers a much-needed update to the current forest carbon accounting method, which is based on nationally reported data that is often incomplete and inconsistent. By providing an up-to-date, highly accurate overview of the carbon implications of forest conservation and restoration locally, nationally and globally, the new platform can bring unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability to the arena, he said.

In addition to policy makers and investors, the platform is a boon to environmental advocates and rights groups who can access global and national open source data, enabling them to hold governments and organizations accountable for their commitments .

Evergreen forest
Global forests are still a global net sink of carbon, but some wooded areas have switched to net emitters due to degradation, deforestation, rising temperatures and many other threats. Image courtesy of Ctrees

Precision and detail on a reduced scale

There are approximately 3 trillion trees of 60,000 species on the planet. Therefore, tracking the carbon flux of forests around the world is a huge task, but one that Saatchi said the new technology could tackle. “In the old days, we had to take [airborne] images and then draw lines around these individual 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 combines carbon flux datasets dating back to the early 2000s with AI-enabled high-resolution satellite data from a range of systems, including Planet, that provide datasets up to at 3 meters by 3 (10 feet by 10 feet). ) and other sources that descend at a resolution of 0.5 by 0.5 meters (1.6 by 1.6 feet).

“This brings us to the level of trees,” Saatchi said, allowing individual trees outside the woods, such as in urban centers, to be included in carbon accounting, a practice typically lacking until now. The fine-scale approach to carbon accounting makes it possible to estimate emissions and sequestration not only at the national level, but also at much finer scales, such as individual jurisdictions, forest plots, plantations and tree planting projects.

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

Global carbon map of forests
Ctrees map of carbon stored in forests globally in 2021. Image courtesy of Ctrees

A boost to the responsibility of planting trees

Karen Holl, a restoration ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said tools that enable rigorous, real-time monitoring of tree cover are critical to verifying whether the massive tree-growing efforts around the world are having the desired effects. This is because many organizations involved in tree planting focus excessively on the number of trees planted in the ground, she said, rather than investing in long-term monitoring to ensure that the trees planted remain healthy and alive in the future.

“There are many examples of tree-growing efforts that initially failed, and sometimes the same areas are planted year after year with trees counted multiple times,” Holl told Mongabay in an email. “The monitoring of most of these reforestation projects is short-term (1-3 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 lack of monitoring is a major concern. She and her colleagues recently found that fewer than a fifth of tree-planting organizations in the tropics have a monitoring program, with even fewer tree survival measures or amounts of carbon stored.

Martin acknowledged that platforms like Ctrees are powerful tools for promoting transparency and accountability in the industry, but noted that reducing the merits of reforestation efforts down to the amount of carbon sequestered alone risks neglecting 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 are seeing the spread of new invasive pests and diseases in the United States 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 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 solely through technological solutions. “The real solutions for forest recovery and sustainable use are social, cultural and economic,” Ashton told Mongabay in an email. “Better forest management is achieved when attention is focused on solving human problems in forests that are experiencing deforestation and degradation.”

Martin echoed Ashton’s call for more human-centered 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,” he said.

Banner image: Ctrees map of carbon stored in forests globally in 2021. Image courtesy of Ctrees


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Carolyn Cowan is a writer on Mongabay staff. 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, ancient forests, plantations, primary forests, rainforests , reforestation, satellite imagery, Technology And Conservation, Trees, Wildtech


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