Forests as Carbon Sinks

Forests play a crucial role in the carbon cycle as they serve a dual purpose in the fight against climate change.

  • Forests and peatlands are naturally occurring “carbon sinks” that absorb carbon out of the atmosphere. According to studies, over the last two decades, forests have removed a net 7.6 billion tonnes of carbon per year — roughly 15% of global emissions.

  • Intact forests and peatlands are natural storehouses of carbon, keeping it sealed away from the atmosphere.

Carbon loss V/S Carbon Sequestered

Carbon loss V/S Carbon Sequestered

Impact of Deforestation and Land Degradation on Carbon Sinks

Deforestation and land degradation act as a double-edged sword as they not only rob the world of naturally occurring carbon sinks but also result in the release of the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. The severity of this problem was highlighted in 2021 when scientists alarmingly confirmed for the first time that the Amazon rainforest emitted more carbon dioxide than it was able to absorb (close to 1 billion tonnes) primarily due to deforestation, fires, degradation, etc.

Satellite data showing forest loss in the Amazon basin between 2001 to 2020. Credits: ESA

Satellite data showing forest loss in the Amazon basin between 2001 to 2020. Credits: ESA

Protecting Carbon Sinks

COP26, the United Nations’ most recent climate summit, was one of the most critical climate change events in recent years. As diplomats, scientists, lobbyists, activists, artists, the media, politicians and businesspeople from 197 nations gathered in Glasgow, the world witnessed a series of collaborative global commitments, including various initiatives to curb global deforestation and transform food and land-use systems.

World Leaders at COP26

World Leaders at COP26

One of the first noteworthy pledges to be signed at the recent COP26 climate summit was the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

As per the declaration, more than 100 world leaders agreed to reverse deforestation and land degradation by the end of the decade with $19 billion in public and private funds committed towards the effort.

Madagascar deforestation from 1984-2020

Madagascar deforestation from 1984-2020

This was accompanied by the Congo Basin pledge where a group of 12 donors, collectively pledged at least $1.5 billion towards protection and sustainable management of the Congo Basin forests over the next four years.

While these pledges are expected to play an integral role in climate action and curbing deforestation; historical evidence points to the contrary. The complete failure of the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests to curb deforestation highlights that inconsistencies in disclosure practices, a lack of context for information and use of boilerplate, and non-comparable reporting still pose as obstacles to the implementation of these new pledges.

The only way to ensure the success of these commitments is to develop a robust monitoring infrastructure that can provide access to consistent, comparable, reliable and transparent information.

“We must develop a framework and reporting mechanism to ensure these promises are met — if we aren’t careful, we could still lose our forests as the impact of climate change is felt through wildfires or pathogens, without ever bringing in the axe or the chainsaw,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and managing director of World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

Geospatial data as a Solution

Developing a monitoring infrastructure has historically been a monumental task. Traditional methods like IoT monitors, forest guards, etc. are expensive and time-consuming.

Geospatial data has the ability to address these shortcomings. As a result of technological advancements, combined with a greater number of satellites in orbit that have the capability to monitor vast areas in real-time in a cost-effective manner. Thus, it is a perfect tool for developing a standard monitoring infrastructure that will equip organizations in various sectors with decision-useful data.

While Geospatial data is the perfect solution, obtaining useful insights from it in its raw form is impossible. To leverage geospatial data for building an effective monitoring infrastructure that can provide various outcomes like monitoring the rate of deforestation, extracting trees fell, the area destroyed by biomass fires, equivalent TCO2E emissions, there is a need for this data to be processed and run through sophisticated models. This points towards the need for organizations with analytical skills and computational capacity that can integrate data from a variety of sources, like satellites, ground measurement monitors, and various models, and disseminate these insights via APIs.

Importance for stakeholders

Standard Monitoring Infrastructure ©BSA, 2022

Standard Monitoring Infrastructure ©BSA, 2022

This Standard Monitoring Infrastructure (SMI) can be pivotal for various organizations and stakeholders in the ecosystem. It can democratize access to reference data for tracking, accounting, verification, etc.

  • Carbon Sequestration Companies

The SMI will be able to provide satellite-based measurements for various relevant parameters which will create a single source of truth thus building a trustworthy monitoring foundation between organizations. This would in turn allow smarter and more efficient allocation of resources.

  1. Carbon Credit Market

Organizations purchasing sequestration services further need to undergo a rigorous review process to receive offset carbon credits that they can sell in the carbon credit market. The SMI can provide the various agencies with high quality and reliable data to validate the projects.

  1. Governments and Multilateral Agencies

The SMI can actively monitor forests regularly and report any perceivable activities related to degradation or deforestation to compliance agencies on a timely basis.

  1. Ensuring sustainability of supply chains

With a standard monitoring structure in place, organizations can monitor forest destruction and ensure supply chains are sustainable and transparent. Additionally, organizations like rating agencies, asset managers, climate litigation firms can verify claims of various organizations on the impacts of their supply chains on forests.

Let’s save the forests together!

The key to protecting our carbon sinks and curbing deforestation would be to maximize the ability of the monitoring infrastructure to reduce the information asymmetry that currently persists.