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The calculation of carbon reserves in forests: an essential mechanism to create incentives for the conservation of ecosystems

Capturing CO2 emissions through forest conservation is a solution that individuals, companies, and countries can leverage to address climate change

By: Paula Iturralde-Pólit

The key is to partner with projects that fund the protection of fragile ecosystems and benefit the inhabitants of high biodiversity areas. The initial challenge for this to happen lies in accurately accounting for the carbon stored in a specific area so that compensation is fair and appropriate.

It’s not a novelty to say that trees capture CO2 from the atmosphere; however, it’s challenging to determine the exact amount they store. This calculation depends on various variables that vary from one location to another, such as geographical location, elevation, forest type, or its conservation status. Therefore, it requires the use and development of complex tools to obtain precise data. In 2019, a research project was initiated in the Chocó Andino Biosphere Reserve (RBCA) with the aim of measuring the amount of carbon stored in the remaining forests of this biologically significant area. The idea was to provide information on a local mechanism to access financial incentives for conservation and carbon footprint reduction. Years of work came to fruition this week with the publication of the study in the journal Forests by a group of professionals from Fundación Futuro (Quito), the University of the Americas (Quito), and Albo Climate (Tel Aviv).

To estimate the amount of carbon, this study used measurements taken in lowland tropical forests and Andean forests at both the national and regional levels.

Data from 21 permanent plots collecting carbon storage information in the RBCA were combined with published and open access data from another 130 similar forest plots located in the Chocó in Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador, as well as in the Andes in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Three open satellite databases were also utilized. In this study, high-resolution maps of 10m² in the RBCA were generated using artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques. This is equivalent to dividing the 195,000 hectares of forest coverage in the reserve into equal squares with sides of 10 meters each.

The collected information was used to feed complex mathematical models that relate observed carbon storage data in the plots to the physical characteristics obtained from satellite images. By performing several repetitions, the models search for similar conditions throughout the area to extrapolate information to places where there are no ground measurements and obtain landscape-scale data. The result is a robust and detailed map with validated and precise information on how much carbon is stored in the forests that are part of the Chocó Andino.

According to the study, the models enable rigorous estimations to reduce the likelihood of errors and biases. It demonstrates that on-the-ground information is limited and can overestimate the amount of carbon stored in a specific area. However, when combined with physical data from high-resolution satellite images and the assistance of mathematical models, the accuracy of the calculations substantially increases. This monitoring now allows for real-time data on stored carbon, and it’s interesting to note that there is a slight increase in the amount of carbon recorded year after year, thanks to conservation projects in the area. By 2021, the RBCA stored more than 70,000 kilograms of carbon per hectare of forest.

This study is the result of a strategic alliance that combines the long-term research line of the University of the Americas, led by the lead author, Francisco Cuesta, with the financial mechanism for conservation led by Futuro Foundation. It’s also a promising approach to improving carbon storage predictions, while not forgetting that the forests of the Chocó Andino Biosphere Reserve, besides being carbon sinks, are a refuge for thousands of species essential for maintaining the necessary balance in the ecosystem.

Carolina Proaño-Castro, co-author of the study and executive director of the Futuro Foundation, ensures that these results will facilitate the traceability and transparency needed for the delivery of financial incentives for conservation. Now, the goal is for organizations like the companies within Grupo Futuro to opt for this solution to fulfill their climate commitments while ensuring a positive impact on forest conservation and human wellbeing.

This financing mechanism also includes a technological platform that uses blockchain to generate tokens called NFTrees. The platform is configured for single transactions, ensuring that the forest cannot be used by more than one person or organization at the same time. It also does not allow for the deletion or alteration of information, making it secure, transparent, and traceable in each transaction. When a purchase is made, a token with a unique code is provided, storing information about the amount of carbon stored, the exact location, and the investment.

The program aims to generate at least USD 1.9 million over the next 5 years to conserve 22,600 hectares of forest, benefiting 700 families within the Chocó Andino Biosphere Reserve (RBCA). The magnitude of the climate crisis requires all of us to take ambitious actions and collectively make efforts to ensure that the average temperature of the environment does not exceed 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Certainly, the first step is to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, but it also requires “capturing” back into the soil every ton of emissions not reduced just as quickly. This study represents another step in that direction.

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