Remote Sensing for Carbon Offsetting

Mark Altaweel

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Carbon offsetting has emerged as a pathway to eventually get to net zero carbon emissions. Companies, organisations, countries, and others can plant trees or apply measures that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

To manage this effectively, suitable land needs to be identified and effective monitoring needs to be in place to verify carbon offset claims by agencies and companies. Now, researchers and industry experts are using remote sensing technologies to better coordinate carbon offsetting efforts.

Carbon monitoring

Carbon monitoring is one area beginning to emerge as an important area for activists and researchers. This includes monitoring how effective efforts to apply carbon offsetting is in given regions.

NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System

In fact, one application of NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System is to better observe and utilize remote sensing tools for carbon offsetting efforts. The system’s efforts are to aid in the monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) needs by the community interested in monitoring carbon fluxes.

A key objective is to use NASA-based observations and analytical capabilities to better understand the carbon cycle and its change, which includes carbon storage efforts.[1] To improve efforts, high quality remote sensing data are needed, including from Landsat satellites to Lidar-based tools such as the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) system.

A shaded orange map showing areas of the United States with higher than normal carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Map of atmospheric carbon dioxide anomalies within the United States based on data from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), 2014 – 2016.

In a recent review paper that looked at this effort by NASA and research activities, it is clear that NASAs efforts to make it easier to obtain needed data have been utilized to monitor carbon storage in a number of areas.

However, one problem found by reviewers is that carbon offset efforts could benefit more by having a more comprehensive set of data from different regions. In particular, areas that mostly contain seagrass, terrestrial wetlands, tidal marshes, rivers, and permafrost are far less known in their carbon flux and utilization for carbon offsetting. How such regions are managed and if net storage of carbon is increasing or decreasing are important goals that need to be addressed by remote sensing tools to make efforts more comprehensive.[2]

Using remote sensing to verify carbon offsets

Remote sensing observations are critical to verify the accuracy of reported carbon offsets. As an example, and in a paper focusing on the California’s offset efforts, it was found that 30.0 million tCO2e (tons (t) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent (e)) were over-credited at a value of over $400 million.

More consistent monitoring and the use of higher resolution imagery, including from UAVs and high resolution satellite data, were reported as one of the most important needs to improve the market and its accuracy in reporting carbon offsets.[3] 

Earth Blox

A challenge for companies and organizations has been effective monitoring of their carbon offsetting investments. Tools such as Earth Blox have been developed in recent years which try to leverage large datasets, such as Google Earth’s Engine entire data archive, so that it is easier to use by organisations and requires minimal coding so organisations can monitor if their carbon offsetting investments are being put in place.

By using available data across large platforms such as Google Earth Engine, the idea is that organizations can also better enforce or compel carbon offsetting efforts to be effective.[4]

Using geospatial technologies to improve carbon offset efforts

Efforts are not only trying to improve monitoring of carbon offsetting but also trying to improve the selection and ultimately placement of carbon offsetting efforts. For instance, efforts are using UAVs to not only find new places to plant trees but to also conduct tree planting.

So called UAV-supported seed sowing (UAVsSS) is one such example. These efforts have been focused on post-wildfire reforestation, mangrove restoration, forest restoration after degradation, weed eradication, and desert greening projects.

Many efforts, however, often fail to consider planting conditions and other factors that may affect growth of plants. Better incorporation of other remote sensing data, along with ground efforts, could be needed to make these more effective.

Using Sentinel 1 and Sentinel 2 satellites to find better access or more likely successful planting areas might be needed, including high priority regions rather than only general areas that could potentially grow trees. Using the full range of higher resolution UAV data along with spaceborn tools that incorporate vegetation and surface data are needed.[5] 

A drone hovering above some confer trees with the blue sky in the background.
UAVs can be used to help monitor carbon offsetting efforts.

In fact, UAVs are being used in many other ways to provide delivery of resources rather than only for monitoring. Some application include using UAVs to attach sensors that can monitor nearby trees for activity related to logging or health of trees. This provides better real-time data and at a more micro-scale for stakeholders.

In general, the trend has been to increasingly use UAVs to conduct what are seen as large-scale efforts related to not only monitoring but actively managing efforts needed to improve carbon offsetting. This is particularly the case in remote or difficult to access regions.[6]

Remote sensing provides a critical suite of tools that can be used to monitor our efforts in a global-scale focus on carbon offsetting. In many cases, efforts have not been without fault and this only demonstrates the need for better and more accurate carbon offsetting monitoring.

Beyond just monitoring, remote sensing tools may also need to become more active in improving carbon offsetting by conducting activities needed such as planting and placement of monitoring tools that can monitor individual tree health. What is clear is remote sensing will be critical if our efforts to carbon offset is successful in the long-term.

References

[1]    For more on the NASA Carbon Monitoring System, see:  https://carbon.nasa.gov/index.html.

[2]    For more on carbon monitoring and its use on carbon offsetting, see:  Campbell, Anthony D., Temilola Fatoyinbo, Sean P. Charles, Laura L. Bourgeau-Chavez, Joaquim Goes, Helga Gomes, Meghan Halabisky, et al. 2022. ‘A Review of Carbon Monitoring in Wet Carbon Systems Using Remote Sensing’. Environmental Research Letters 17 (2): 025009. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ac4d4d.

[3]    For more on California’s carbon offsetting market and its misreporting, see:  Badgley, Grayson, Jeremy Freeman, Joseph J. Hamman, Barbara Haya, Anna T. Trugman, William R. L. Anderegg, and Danny Cullenward. 2022. ‘Systematic Over‐crediting in California’s Forest Carbon Offsets Program’. Global Change Biology 28 (4): 1433–45. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15943.

[4]    A story on this effort by Earth Blox can be found here:  https://www.energyvoice.com/promoted/416001/maximising-carbon-offsetting-with-remote-sensing-article-is-free/

[5]    For more on efforts using UAVs to plant vegetation as part of carbon offsetting efforts, see:  Mohan, Midhun, Gabriella Richardson, Gopika Gopan, Matthew Mehdi Aghai, Shaurya Bajaj, G. A. Pabodha Galgamuwa, Mikko Vastaranta, et al. 2021. ‘UAV-Supported Forest Regeneration: Current Trends, Challenges and Implications’. Remote Sensing 13 (13): 2596. https://doi.org/10.3390/rs13132596.

[6]    For more on the use of UAVs to attach monitoring tools that can detect health of trees, see:  https://cp.catapult.org.uk/news/drone-technology-directly-and-indirectly-combatting-climate-change/.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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