Top carbon scientists from around the world met at the NRS’s Blue Oak Ranch Reserve this September as part of the Global Climate Action Summit. Experts at measuring the amount of carbon in forests, grasslands, and other natural environments, they gathered to discuss how their countries measure terrestrial carbon emissions. These measurements, which every country agreed to make in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, are the first step in helping the world meet its emissions reduction goals and preventing catastrophic global warming.
“We can’t stop what we aren’t measuring,” said John-O Niles. Niles is director of the Carbon Institute. The Institute helps countries train carbon accounting experts and sponsored the gathering. “Only when everyone knows their emissions currently can they know whether they are on track to meet their goals.”
The lion’s share of the carbon on land is held by plants, especially in forests and wetlands. That’s why tracking such ecological carbon stocks is so important.
The problem is, “not many people have these skills; the world is short of inventory specialists,” said Rizaldi Boer, director of the Center for Climate Risk and Opportunity Management and a lecturer at Bogor Agricultural University, Indonesia
To fill the void, the experts gathered at Blue Oak Ranch have worked to train specialists in their own countries with help from the Carbon Institute. Developing an appropriate training curriculum is challenging. Carbon accounting draws upon skills from a wide range of fields, from forestry and statistics to GIS/remote sensing and public policy.
“Since 2015, we have trained almost 40 people in the Republic of Congo and Cameroon to increase the carbon workforce needed,” said Francois Hiol Hiol. Hiol Hiol is director of Centre Régional d’Enseignements Spécialisé en Agriculture Forêt-Bois in Cameroon. Located in the midst of the world’s second largest tropical forest, the country appreciates the importance of forests as a bulwark against accelerating climate change. “We aim to extend the program of teaching to all 10 Central African countries.”
Those programs need sharp, motivated students because ecological carbon is inherently tricky to measure. In general, the bigger the plant, the more carbon it holds. But different plant species hold different amounts of carbon. It’s only possible to obtain rough estimates of the carbon in giant trees such as coast redwood or Tasmanian blue gum. And the fin-like buttresses that support many tropical trees defy the DBH (diameter-at-breast-height) method foresters use to measure tree size .
Changes in land use and land cover also affect carbon emissions. Land cleared for agriculture or consumed by wildfire emits prodigious quantities of greenhouse gases. But if the forest regrows, at least some of that carbon will be resorbed.
Complicating matters further, countries often categorize carbon sources differently. For example, Malaysia counts palm oil plantations as forest. This categorization causes large swings in their terrestrial carbon stocks when plantation trees are harvested. Indonesia, however, considers palm oil plantations agricultural, and doesn’t include harvests in their figures.
Paris Agreement pluses and minuses
These discrepancies are due in part to the vagueness of the Paris Agreement itself. To ensure countries would sign on, many critical details were left to future negotiations.
“We need to make measurements more standardized and clear so no one feels there’s cheating and everyone is on a level playing field,” said Gamma-Nur Merrillia-Sularso of Indonesia's Ministry of Environment.
The Paris Agreement has forced the world to up its carbon accounting game. Prior to the agreement, only developed nations were expected to conducted regular inventories. Now all nations have pledged to monitor their emissions and set emissions reduction goals.
Unfortunately, this progress has a flip side: setting and meeting those targets is completely voluntary.
“It’s like a weight loss problem. You can count calories but no one tells you how much weight to lose." said Liu Yingchun, of China's Forest Carbon Accounting and Monitoring Center.
On top of that, there’s no penalty for countries that fail to meet their pledge.
Even so, carbon accounting has already inspired some countries to alter their practices. Among them is Indonesia, which has been among the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases. Land use changes—largely draining and felling peat forests for timber—produce the majority of this tropical nation’s carbon emissions. To combat the problem, the government banned all conversions of primary peat forest three years ago.
Counting carbon makes a difference
Indonesia’s deforestation rates once routinely neared 1 million hectares per year. The country aims to shrink that to zero over the next decade.
“We made the climate change. We can stop it,” said Boer of Indonesia.
Keeping that carbon in the ground will come at a cost to Indonesia’s economy. The government is working with local people to cushion the pain to rural communities’ pocketbooks, Boer said. Indonesia is establishing new markets for products harvested sustainably from intact forest and developing opportunities for ecotourism.
An income source for conservation
Developing countries that have demonstrated success keeping carbon in living forests can also secure funding to continue those gains through a system called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus conservation of forest carbon stocks, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.) Entities in developed countries finance the REDD+ system to meet their own environmental or social responsibility goals.
“For 20 years I have been working on climate change. In this period, including 15 years of negotiations, it’s never been easy to agree at the global level and to implement on a national level,” said Ibu Nur Masripatin. As Indonesia's top climate change official, Masripatin has played a major role in crafting carbon emissions rules.
Despite the long years of talks, Masripatin has never lost hope. “It’s about commitment and science. About being patient and persistent on what we’re trying to achieve. There are many things left to do. Climate change opens opportunities for all of us. Each of us has a role.”