Land & Carbon Lab takes land, forest monitoring to new depths

Dr Charles Barber, Senior Biodiversity Advisor with WRI, explaining the importance of trees outside the forest landscape. Screengrab from COP 26 YouTube channel.

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 5 – The ability to analyse a faraway land and all that it is holding or had held, whether they are trees, crops and carbon stocks, could not have seen a better time than it has now, enthused the lead players behind Land and Carbon Lab, an initiative by the World Resources Institute (WRI), which took a special featuring Tuesday at the sidelines of the United Nations climate event COP 26 in Glasgow.

The excitement was infectious as data scientists and other drivers of Land and Carbon Lab announced the latest advancement in land monitoring – from a capacity to capture data of 100 metres pixels resolution via satellite images up till recently, they will now be able to see the details of a land at a resolution of 10 metres, and figure out the carbon stocks of the land among other matters, thanks to innovations over the years in land monitoring.

WRI CEO and President Ani Dasgupta

What are the implications of such a development?

That innovations and a better understanding of nature and such knowledge in the right hands can help in the ongoing race against global warming, and that cooperation among stakeholders of lands to take appropriate actions towards sustainable land and forest management can ensure the protection of lives and livelihood and ultimately humanity on planet Earth.

This is especially so at the rate forests are disappearing amid the growing demand for land use for agriculture, commodities and development on one side while more evidence of a changing climate has been cropping up on the other.

In his opening address at the event, WRI CEO and President Ani Dasgupta said the work of Land and Carbon Lab will not be about data alone. It will be about bringing together various ideas and streams of data together from the forest, water resources and other areas to help people take better, evidence-based action.

“Twenty-five percent of emissions come from land but 30 percent of solutions could come from the land,” he said.

Innovation will be critical to figure out this balance, to know what is happening to the land, what is happening to the stocks of carbon associated with it and taking the best advantage of what needs to be done, he said.

An expansion of WRI’s Global Forest Research, which provides data about forests including deforestation, fire alerts, land use, tree cover loss and gain and carbon emission rates with the help of satellites and other sources, the Land and Carbon Lab is a new frontier in land data provision that will put together information from different streams, all aimed to provide decision makers and those who would be able to make changes with the data.

Presenting the innovation, Director of Land and Carbon Lab, Crystal Davis said the idea will be to make available the land data not just for the decision makers, like governments and companies who would be able to use such data for the sustainable management of their land resources, carbon trade, but also other stakeholders such as non governmental organisations (NGOs) and others in the forefront of forest trees protection and biodiversity restoration activities.

Land and Carbon Lab Director Crystal Davis presenting the latest innovation in land monitoring.

Crystal said forest monitoring have already had impact on the reduction of deforestation in some places and cited the case of 38 indigenous territories in Peru that saw a 51 percent reduction in deforestation and how 161 million hectares of Congo Basin Forest saw a 18 percent reduction in deforestation.

She said Land and Carbon Lab will build up on existing science and technology while bringing together scientists and technologists to develop a comprehensive global land and carbon monitoring system.

“Within two years, we aim to .monitor all forms of land cover and land cover change plus associated terrestrial CO2 emissions.”

This is expected to be done on a global scale year-on-year at a 10-metre resolution.

On the importance of the 10-metre resolution, she explained the differences it would make in land monitoring.

Scientist Rebecca Moore, Director of Google Earth presenting on the planetary level of environmental monitory via cloud computing and Artificial Intelligence.

Unlike previously where lower resolution data capture left out many details of a land, the new capacity provides clearer picture of a land and its components such as whether it is a crop land, whether there are buildings and so on.

These details will matter in the estimation of carbon stocks based on land cover.

Citing the case of a satellite image of a land at 16 km resolution which appeared all green and the area was classified as a forest and its estimated carbon stock was given at 170Mt (based on the biomass of a typical forest) but upon another satellite imagery of the same place at a 1km resolution, the subsequent carbon information had to be changed.

It turned out to be not all forest as there was grassland, cropland and built-up areas and the estimated carbon stock was reduced to 120 Mt, she said.

With a 10-metre resolution that Land and Carbon Lab is looking at now, this will radically change the understanding of carbon stocks and flows across a landscape and how this new knowledge could change the global climate strategy.

Crystal said there was no plans to build a big new data platform but all data will be on GFR, while scientific collaborations will be fostered to push up innovations.

She also reiterated that the work will not be about data alone, but ensuring that the information gets across to the people who can make the changes.

Land and Carbon Lab is looking forward to working together with stakeholders including governments wishing to meet their national emissions target.

Other key presenters at the event were American software engineer, Rebecca Moore who is Director of Google Earth and Dr. Charles Barber, Senior Biodiversity Advisor with WRI.