Back To School: Learning To Count Carbon In Trees And Forests

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By Steve Zwick

26 August 2013 | La Jolla, San Diego | California | Industrial countries have set billions of dollars aside to save endangered rainforest and Reduce greenhouse gas Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in countries with land-based economies, but real money won’t start flowing until investors know that rainforest nations can count – and account for – the carbon captured in trees. That, in turn, won’t happen without well-trained carbon accountants on the ground in countries like Brazil, Ghana, and the Philippines.

The University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have teamed up to train those accountants by creating a month-long course in advanced terrestrial carbon accounting that will be replicated at universities around the world. The inaugural class began two weeks ago and has attracted an impressive array of foresters, auditors, and regulators from those three countries as well as from Cameroon, Pakistan, Peru, Nicaragua, Tajikistan, Italy, Portugal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Paraguay, Colombia, the Netherlands, the UK, and Papua New Guinea.

Ecosystem Marketplace
is participating as well, and we will be harvesting our experience both to shed light on the intricacies of this critical subject and to provide a glimpse into what lies ahead for other potential participants.

Here’s a quick summary of the first two weeks.

Week One: The Foundation

In the first week, we learned the difference between carbon counting and carbon accounting. The first deals with the science: how do you measure the amount of carbon captured in forests? The second deals with the politics: how do you take those measurements and the factors impacting them and create a global set of rules on which we all agree?

Broadly speaking, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) answers the first question, but only at the behest of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which deals with the second. In other words, if the politicians who comprise the UNFCCC have a scientific question, they submit it to the IPCC, which culls the world’s scientific papers for an answer.

Lecture 1: Orientation

Before the first lecture, we were assigned to read “Monitoring and Estimating Tropical Forest Carbon Stocks: Making REDD a Reality”, which examines the state of carbon accounting circa 2007. Expectations for remote sensing were high then, but they haven’t really delivered – so today we’re following the same combination of crawling around on the ground to see what’s there and then mixing it with satellite imagery to see if the pictures from the sky tell us what’s on the ground.

The first lecture offered a brief history of carbon accounting, beginning with a look at late American scientist Charles Keeling’s efforts to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 1958. The “Keeling Curve” begins then and slants upward – but rhythmicallyso – because forests sponge up carbon dioxide in the summer. This simple observation offers a springboard into the science of carbon sequestration and the politics of carbon accounting.

The Keeling Curve

The Keeling Curve

Lecture 2: Field Measurements and Carbon Inventories

We spent the second day with Conservation Fund Forest Carbon Analyst Jordan Golinkoff, who explained the mechanics of measuring forests before taking us out to the Dawson Los Monos Canyon Reserve to apply our learning.

The take-home is that you want to most aggressively sample the areas that are most likely to have the most carbon. We learned all about how to separate your forest into similar chunks, how to select plots, and how to measure the trees in them. The most common method is to measure the trees in “nested fixed area plots”, which are plots inside plots. In this method, you make a larger plot where you measure only the larger trees, and inside this, a smaller one where you measure the smaller trees.

Golinkoff, however, says he prefers “variable radius plots”, which means you use a nifty little prism to measure the probable size of trees in your plot, and then only measure those above a certain radius. It’s the method we’ll be using in the Canyon. It’s complicated, but he says it’s more cost-effective and ultimately more accurate because you can survey more plots this way.

Lecture 3: The UNFCCC and Terrestrial Carbon Accounting

Peter Graham is Canada’s lead negotiator and policy advisor on REDD+, and he co-chairs the UNFCCC REDD+ negotiations. He led our day-three lecture, which focused on the history and current state of REDD+ within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Here is our pre-course reading:

Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries (REDD)

The UN’s REDD Web Platform

Report on the expert meeting on forest reference emission levels and forest reference levels for implementation of REDD+ activities. FCCC/SBSTA/2011/INF.18

Graham provided a detailed overview of the negotiating process – how ideas bubble up from the subsidiary bodies, and how the Conference of the Parties tops these off. We will be harvesting his lectures for insights in the months leading up to year-end climate talks in Warsaw.

Lectures 4 and 5: IPCC Good Practice Guidance

Thelma Krug is Brazil’s lead climate negotiator and a mathematician with the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). More importantly, she co-authored the IPCC’s Good Practice Guidance for terrestrial carbon accounting. It’s on this guidance that all of the technical discussions over REDD within the UNFCCC take place, and it’s also on this guidance that may voluntary carbon standards build their own rules for carbon accounting.

This is like the Constitution of carbon accounting, and the Bill of Principles are as follows:

: Anyone who develops baselines has to do so in a way that is clearly-explained and accessible.

: Anyone who develops baselines has to use the same parameters from one time frame to the other.

: Anyone who develops baselines has to do so in a way that different parties will recognize.

: Anyone who develops baselines has to do so in a way that is accurate.

Week Two: Applying the Principles

The second week was an exercise in reality – and that meant it was less structured and more jumbled and more chaotic than the first. Anup Joshi came down from the University of Minnesota to explain the intricacies of remote sensing and GIS, but the meat of the course focused on our division into four groups.

Two focused on early-stage reference levels presented by Costa Rica and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while two developed their own early-stage reference levels for Nepal and Indonesia.

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Steve Zwick is the Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace. He can be reached at
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