The Basics Of Carbon Accounting Under The UN Framework Convention

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By Steve Zwick

12 November 2013 | WARSAW | Poland | India has a Constitution; Germany has a Grundgesetz; and the Terrestrial Carbon Accounting world has its Good Practice Guidance – 5,000 pages of science-based rules for measuring, monitoring, and accounting for the carbon captured in forests, farms, and prairies. Every carbon standard harnessing markets to save endangered rainforest and Reduce greenhouse gas Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation is built on these Guidelines, and any agreement forged under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must adhere to them.

Developed countries have set aside billions of dollars for REDD, but they won’t start spending it in a big way until they see trustworthy reference levels that tell them both how much carbon in captured in the recipient countries’ forests, farms, and prairies and how that carbon content is changing. To be trustworthy, those reference levels must have been developed in accordance with the Good Practice Guidance.

To date, however, no developing countries have published reference levels – largely because few people outside a very small cadre of scientists, negotiators, and project developers understand the Guidance. Without that understanding, developing countries can’t establish trustworthy reference levels; and without those reference levels, developed countries won’t start paying for REDD.

To end this stalemate, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched an intensive month-long course in advanced terrestrial carbon accounting at UCSD’s La Jolla campus.

First Principles and History

Like most things related to climate science, the Guidelines were developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which gathers research from scientists around the world and distills the essence. Quick history here, segue to:

  • Transparency: There is sufficient and clear documentation such that individuals or groups other than the inventory compilers can understand how the inventory was compiled and can assure themselves it meets the good practice requirements for national greenhouse gas emissions inventories.
  • Completeness: Estimates are reported for all relevant categories of sources and sinks, and gases.
  • Consistency: Estimates for different inventory years, gases and categories are made in such a way that differences in the results between years and categories reflect real differences in emissions.
  • Comparability: The national greenhouse gas inventory is reported in a way that allows it to be compared with national greenhouse gas inventories for other countries.
  • Accuracy: The national greenhouse gas inventory contains neither over- nor under-estimates so far as can be judged.

Like constitutions, these apparently simple Principles are open to interpretation and xx, as I was to learn as over the four weeks of the course.

It Seems so Easy

And on the plane ride in, I became convinced it would all be oh, so simple, and the first paper we read didn’t dissuade me from that. It was called “Monitoring and Estimating Tropical Forest Carbon Stocks: Making REDD a Reality”, and it laid out a procedure that combined 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. It's a process I'd written about before, and now I was to learn how to do it for real.

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 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: The Basics

The first lecture offered a brief history of carbon accounting, beginning with a look at late American scientist Charles Keeling’s 1958 attempt to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The “Keeling Curve” begins then and slants rhythmically upward, like an ascending heartbeat.

That heartbeat is the world’s forests, which sponge up carbon dioxide in the summer. It turns out there are more of them in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere… more TK.

This simple observation offers a springboard into the science of carbon sequestration and the politics of carbon accounting and why we are here – for, although scientists have a pretty good idea of how much carbon goes into oceans and the atmosphere and how much comes from factories, they’re far from sure how much comes from or goes into forests, farms, and prairies.

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, and it’s complicated. Golinkoff, however, 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 co-chairs the UNFCCC REDD+ negotiations, and he led us on a day-long excursion into the history and current state of REDD+ within the 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

He explained why the opening plenaries of climate talks are so boring (because delegates are just reciting their positions) and how they become more interesting and productive as negotiations break into smaller groups that actually negotiate and then to smaller groups in smaller and smaller rooms, more technological issues come under the gun.

After that, he offered a detailed walk-through of negotiations from 2005, when REDD was introduced, to the present:


REDD was formally introduced into the UNFCCC process.

Bali Action Plan 2007

In Bali, negotiators let degradation into the equations for the first time – and left the door open to what later became the “plus” in REDD+: namely, “conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries”.

They established two negotiating tracks – one focused on the existing Kyoto Protocol, and one focused on creating a replacement. REDD talks took place in the replacement track -- formally the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA).


This was the year everything fell apart – except REDD+. For the first time ever, the COP recognized REDD as “crucial” in combatting climate change, and called for the creation of mechanisms “including REDD-plus” to get performance-based finance flowing to developed countries. It called on the UNFCCC to use the most recent IPCC guidance and guidelines as a basis for estimating anthropogenic forest-related greenhouse gas emissions by sources and removals by sinks, forest carbon stocks and forest area changes.

And there was money, too. It even established the Green Climate Fund to xx. On the sidelines, countries like the United States, Norway, and Germany were pledging billions towards REDD – and that figure now stands at xx and counting.

But North Korea sent a ripple of fear through the REDD community when it introduced the concept of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Activities (NAMAs). The idea was to identify activities that developing countries could undertake to earn credit by reducing emissions, and REDD clearly fit into that category. The trouble is that NAMAs were a whole new mechanism needing a whole new set of agreements. Proponents immediately tried to distance REDD from the new financing mechanism on the block – largely because REDD was so advanced and they feared it would backslide if thrown into this new concept.


Sub-national still requires reporting of leakage at national level.


In Durban, the central question for REDD was how to define a forest – which is no easy task. EXPAND.
If you are applying a different forest definition, you have to explain why. It was recognized by negotatiors that the definition being applied for annex 1 was too restrictive. It was a concern. Durban gives you the leeway to define forests in a way that is most suitable for country circumstances, but must be national one.
For our work, the big deal was that to reduce the burden of explaining great detail every aspect, for practical purposes, a summary would be provided.
if using a different definition for REDD+ than in inventory, will be running two books, and will not serve youwell in long term… Canada had that problem at first, but now can define them the same way… it says you can do it, but


Here we bogged down – but not because REED. Global talks stalled, and we’re all waiting for Warsaw.

If higher level issues – verification related to NAMAs… financing discussions going on and heated. At a technical level, did make progress, but o reflected in a decision.
Sometimes REDD gets held hostage.

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 was one of the founding mothers – having co-authored the Good Practice Guidance on which we were building all of this.

She walked us through the history of the IPCC, beginning with its first assessment report in 1990 and progressing through the creation of the UNFCCC on Earth Day in Rio two years later and the subsequent Good Practice Guidelines that began flowing in 1996 (after a draft in 1995).

The first focused on Land-Use Change and Forestry (LUCF). It followed what Krug called a “cookbook” approach terrestrial carbon accounting. Accountants loved it, but scientists felt it was too prescriptive. As a result, the 2000 guidance followed a more principles-based approach and introduced a concept that would become a major theme in the coming weeks: how to deal with uncertainty.

By 2003, the term had changed to Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry (LULUCF) and suggested that only managed land should be accounted for – raising the question of what, exactly, constitutes “managed land”. In the end, they decided that managed land is any land that either meets certain definitions or the government declares as managed land – on the condition that once it’s declared managed, it can’t be undeclared. Introduce the double-jeopardy aspect.

Finally, in 2006, the term shifted again – this time to Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use (AFOLU). The new name reflected the growing understanding of emissions from agriculture, as well as a reshuffling of categories for farm emissions.

This is also when the principles were introduced.

Keep checking back to see how this evolves, and if any experts out there have suggestions, feel free to offer them.

Week Two: Applying the Principles

The second week, Anup Joshi came down from the University of Minnesota to explain the intricacies of remote sensing and GIS.

Outline of Remainder
I. Overview of GIS
II. Overview of findings from Costa Rica and the Democratic Republic of Congo
III. Harvesting of lessons from Nepal and Indonesia
V. Guide to statistical analysis
VII. Summary and conclusion

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