Forests are often likened to Earth's lungs as they breathe life into our planet by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. However, these invaluable ecosystems are under grave threat, as approximately 12 million hectares of forest are destroyed each year. This deforestation, coupled with agricultural expansion and other land use changes, accounts for approximately 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Stopping the decline and degradation of these natural systems and promoting their restoration could potentially contribute to more than one-third of the total climate change mitigation scientists say is necessary by 2030.
As our planet grapples with the escalating challenges of deforestation, climate change, and biodiversity loss, ramping up efforts to save forests has become crucial. In this critical juncture, the emergence of Digital MRV (Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification) technology represents a groundbreaking advancement in our ability to monitor and manage forests globally.
Understanding the Vital Significance of Forests
Forests, spanning over one-third of the Earth's landmass, play essential roles such as sustaining the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people, offering sanctuary to diverse species, contributing to climate stability, and generating an estimated US$ 75–100 billion annually through goods and services. Yet, one of their most pivotal functions, among the many they serve, is their critical role in mitigating climate change.
Forests act as massive carbon sinks that absorb and store substantial amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Trees and other vegetation take in CO2 during photosynthesis, convert it into organic matter, and store it in their biomass (trunks, branches, leaves, and roots) and the soil.
Forests are the largest storehouses of carbon after the oceans, with studies estimating that forests have removed a net 7.6 billion tonnes of carbon per year over the last two decades — roughly 15% of global emissions.
This carbon sink function slows down the pace at which carbon dioxide accumulates in the environment and is thus essential for mitigating the effects of climate change.
Further, forests also act as a buffer against the impacts of climate change as they act as natural barriers against some natural disasters, reducing the risk of floods, landslides, and erosion while offering protection against extreme weather events like hurricanes and cyclones.
Related: Learn more about how forests act as carbon sinks in our blog.
Loss of Forests and Challenges in Conservation
Forests play a dual role in climate change. They serve as both a cause and a remedy for greenhouse gas emissions. As forests act as carbon reservoirs, they release substantial amounts of carbon emissions when destroyed, further exacerbating the climate crisis. An IUCN issue brief on forests and climate change states, “Around 25% of global emissions come from the land sector, the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the energy sector. About half of these (5-10 GtCO2e annually) comes from deforestation and forest degradation.”
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.
The impact of this, as one can imagine, is dire. Over the past two decades, deforestation has resulted in the loss of approximately 400 million hectares of forest cover, equivalent to over 8 billion tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere annually. Apart from releasing substantial carbon emissions, it also means that we lose more than half of their annual carbon storage capacity.
Furthermore, when forests disappear, it's not only the trees that go down; the entire ecosystem begins to unravel, leading to dire consequences from making air pollution worse, leading to a rise in diseases, disrupting the water cycle and inflicting economic consequences. It also impacts the local climate as trees emit moisture that cools the surrounding air. Deforestation in this regard has been linked to intense heatwaves in North America and Eurasia.
Time to turn things around!
There are still opportunities to reverse these losses and minimise future ones by employing nature-based solutions. Practices like reforestation, afforestation, and natural regeneration of forest ecosystems play a pivotal role in sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is estimated that nearly two billion hectares of degraded land worldwide, equivalent to the size of South America, provide opportunities for restoration.
It is also estimated that if adopted on a global scale, natural regeneration of forests has the potential to capture up to 70 billion tons of carbon in plants and soils by 2050, making it the "the single largest natural climate solution." This is roughly equivalent to the emissions generated by current industrial activities over seven years.
The Impact Measurement Challenge
Although these strategies hold tremendous promise, measuring their impact poses a significant challenge. Monitoring conservation efforts helps in tracking advancement, establishing accountability, and fine-tuning approaches to ensure the success of these initiatives.
However, traditional monitoring and measurement processes are mired in challenges. For instance, project developers typically send crews to manually count trees and measure their height and diameter. The carbon content of each tree is then estimated based on these measurements. Many of these projects are also located in remote places, making data collection difficult. Besides being labour and cost-intensive, these methods also take a lot of time and need technical modernisation to scale quickly enough to meet the planet's urgent needs. Further, they are prone to producing inaccurate estimates, leading to a lack of clarity and legitimacy. This inability to accurately measure and track the impact of sequestration projects has also led to phantom forests (deliberately and accidentally) and provided space for companies to greenwash their initiatives.
Enhancing Conservation with Digital MRV Solutions
The rapid growth of technology, however, is modernizing MRV methods and has emerged as a promising solution towards this end. In this regard, the expansion of the Digital Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification system promises to be a game changer. Digital MRV is a multi-step process that enables the measurement of emissions reduction by a mitigation activity and reporting this information to relevant stakeholders, who can verify and certify the result. It involves using technologies such as satellites, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and IoT, among others. It enhances accuracy, transparency, and accountability and boosts the legitimacy of forest conservation projects.
Building Trust Through Satellite Data and AI
Today, in conjunction with satellites equipped with remote sensing technology, AI can provide independent and high-resolution data on carbon sequestration in forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems. This data can be utilised to monitor and track project implementation and accurately estimate the amount of carbon stored in forests by analysing factors such as canopy height, vegetation density, and tree species. By utilising appropriate machine learning models, these observations can be interpreted to obtain precise carbon estimates. Related: Read our blog to learn more about Satellite-based MRV.
It assumes a pivotal role in forest conservation endeavours, as the success of such projects hinges not only on their initial planning and execution but also on the verification and continuous monitoring of carbon stocks. These measures guarantee they're producing real climate benefits.
Furthermore, this data plays a crucial part in enhancing the transparency and integrity of the carbon credits market, contributing to the credibility of carbon offset projects. It ensures that claimed emission reductions are authentic, quantifiable, and verifiable. Further, it helps ensure high-quality carbon credits since satellite data can assist in calculating the four essential factors that define the quality of carbon credits: baseline, additionality, leakages, and durability. Related: Read our blog "Bridging the Trust Deficit in the Carbon Market through Satellite-based Monitoring” to learn more.
Strengthen Forest Conservation Efforts with Blue Sky Carbon Intelligence
Forest conservation projects offer not only a means to help businesses achieve their net-zero objectives but also present lucrative economic prospects. According to UNEP, a $30 billion investment in combatting deforestation can yield returns of $2.5 trillion by preserving valuable products and services, while strategic investments in forestry can create millions of job opportunities.
As geospatial technology takes on a bigger role in advancing forest conservation projects and fostering sustainable finance, we at Blue Sky Analytics are thrilled to be part of this pioneering movement with the development of our carbon sequestration dataset. Leveraging the power of satellite data, artificial intelligence, and cloud-based solutions, we have honed our capabilities to effectively monitor land-based carbon sequestration. We use satellite data to estimate the amount of carbon stored in forests by considering factors such as the type of trees, their size, and other forest characteristics, such as canopy height and vegetation density. With sophisticated machine learning models, we process these vast reams of data and get sound carbon estimates.
Our dataset makes it possible to measure the impact of carbon sequestration projects at all scales, from small agri-farm level projects to large reforestation initiatives. It offers a scalable and cost-effective solution that can ensure additionality, minimise leakages and help measure the impact of carbon offset initiatives.
We are committed to improving the versions of this dataset over time, adding SAR data and high-resolution satellite data from private players. This dataset is a building block in our vision to build the world’s largest spatially and temporally continuous datasets on key environmental parameters and transform the monitoring, diligence, and risk assessment systems in India and globally.