Giving meaning back to carbon offsets through remote sensing
In the past few years, we have happily witnessed a slew of public offset-related announcements by CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the world. Terms like “climate neutral” and “carbon zero” indicating a transition to a zero-carbon economy. The world’s largest investor, Blackrock, now expects portfolio companies to disclose their direct and power-related emissions; Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030; Starbucks commits to be resource positive by 2030, and Amazon pledges to be carbon neutral by 2040. These science-based targets are made possible with carbon offsets to compensate for emissions by funding an equivalent carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction elsewhere.
On the surface, it all seems great — because 1 - 1 = 0
A quick online search would reveal that carbon offsets get a ton of press for their murky markets, mostly in their voluntary applications use. Last December, Bloomberg published an article investigating enormous carbon credit transactions with JP Morgan, Blackrock, and Disney. The article touches on their environmental efficacy and explores the lack of stakeholder consensus for what a carbon credit even is.
Like any market, some projects are effective and others are, well, less effective. But the case mentioned above is not isolated, it is widespread in the voluntary carbon market. Lax regulation in the voluntary market is due to the lack of a proper standard for carbon accounting, measuring, and quantifying carbon.
As the power of remote sensing for carbon storage monitoring and estimations grows, we at Space4Good figured that it could contribute to a new frontier in biomass estimations and a more accurate and transparent carbon market. We are now developing a carbon management service built around remote sensing. The innovative technology gives accurate, consistent, and high-quality biomass assessment data. It will help customers model their biomass in a precise way for more transparent carbon maintenance. Ultimately, we aim that our service will work to uplift standards across the markets, and tap into the new gold standard of biomass-based markets.
To fully grasp how remote sensing would raise accounting standards, we will go over the building blocks of a successful project and how remote sensing would tackle them. The UN says that offsets must be real, additional, and permanent.
Real - The project and the offsets it provides must exist. You may be wondering why the UN feels the need to remind us of this. Believe it or not, fake offsets are transacted all the time. A project developer may claim that they have a project in a remote rainforest somewhere in the world but there are limited ways for verification. Remote sensing addresses this by leveraging globally available data remotely. It can cross-reference the location a developer provides with remote sensing data practically anywhere in the world, ensuring that projects do indeed exist.
Additional - There need to be additional carbon benefits coming from the project had it not existed. The concept of additionality is confusing to many, including myself where I first heard of it. But it’s easier to understand by learning how remote sensing measures and quantifies it. Here’s how - historical remote sensing data and information about the project site (tree species type, area, …) is plugged into a biomass model. From there we can compare the forest carbon storage of the project versus areas nearby. If the carbon benefits from the project are additional then the project has merit.
Permanent - Every year billions of trees are destroyed. Just like any forest, offset projects are not permanent. They are vulnerable to threats like pests, fires, and human activity. Remote sensing is capable of assessing these risks through deforestation predictions, overlaying data from tree species identification and local pests, and measurements of fire risk.
Although several different project sectors exist, we at Space4Good are developing our remote sensing-based biomass assessments for forests, regenerative agriculture and agroforestry. Forest carbon is also among the largest-volume and lowest-cost opportunities for generating offsets. The transacted value of Forestry and Land Use offsets was greater than the value of every other project category put together— renewable energy transactions being a (distant) runner-up. The sheer size of the market combined with partner backgrounds and experiences accumulated from past projects make this the perfect opportunity.
An agroforestry-focused remote sensing project we recently wrapped up is our Illegal Logging Detection & Prediction Platform. It was a demonstration project for the European Space Agency. We also are currently delivering biomass assessments to Rabobank, supporting them in a great initiative to provide financial incentives for smallholder farms to invest in agroforestry. With a great deal of agroforestry experience, we intend for our upcoming service to estimate carbon storage in a diverse range of environments and conduct land-use change assessments and analysis of dynamic landscapes for carbon certification and verification services. We are lucky to have great partners like Arsari Enviro Industri supporting us in our journey of developing innovative agroforestry solutions.
Would you like more information or are you interested in collaborating with Space4Good? Visit our website or contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org.