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Day two in Poznan: Woods Hole Research Center’s techno blitz and fuzzy data

Day two in Poznan: Woods Hole Research Center's techno blitz and fuzzy data

This afternoon, the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) held a side event at the climate conference in Poznan titled “How REDD policy options interact with forest measuring and monitoring”. Not surpringly, since Wood Hole is, as the name suggests, a research centre, the presentations tended to be extremely technical.

Nonetheless there were brief glimpses about what this technology might mean for REDD and more importantly for the climate, for people and for forests. The outlook is not good.

For Andrea Cattaneo from the WHRC there were three questions: How to raise funds; How to distribute REDD funds between countries; and How to change the incentives on the ground. He discussed the various options under each of these questions, but the (unspoken) assumption underlying it all was that carbon trade would form part or all of REDD financing. WHRC has developed a “Stock-flow mechanism for REDD” which is based on an analogy between forest carbon and financial assets, Cattaneo explained. It is a “multinational enterprise which compensates countries which avoid depreciation of its capital stock (by avoiding deforestation) and pays dividends to its stockholders.” Cattaneo noted that “stakeholders would have to be identified” and added that “Spatially explicit measurement enables participatory process.” No, I don’t know quite what that means either, but I’m worried that WHRC is envisaging that REDD projects will be developed before anyone bothers letting the people living in the area know what will be happening to them and their forests.

Denilson Cardosa from the Brazilian organisation Society for Wildlife Research and Environmental Education (SPVS) described his organisation’s activities to preserve Atlantic Forest and Araucaria Forest in Paraná state. Cardosa’s presentation was remarkable for the number of corporate logos that appeared on his slides: American Electric Power, General Motors, Chevron, Souza Cruz (a subsidiary of British American Tobacco), the British American Tobacco Biodiversity Partnership, and HSBC Bank, along with Fauna and Flora International and The Nature Conservancy. One of the projects that Cardosa described was aimed at minimising the use of “native wood fuel” to protect the forest. During the questions, Cardosa was asked what local people used for fuel now that using wood from native forests is not allowed and how the project addressed the issue of leakage. “The main worry of SPVS is biodiversity conservation,” Cardosa replied.

Bronson Griscom of The Nature Conservancy spoke about “Including degradation in REDD: Why and How?” His “take home messages” were that it was important to include forest degradation in REDD and that the technology exists to measure and monitor degradation. “We have the technology,” he said.

He talked about how “sustainable forest management” resulted in less emissions than conventional logging. He told us that emission from forests where logging operations were certified under the Forest Stewarship Council certification system were lower than in non-FSC certified logging operations. He referred to “Hughell and Butterfield 2008” to support his argument. This sounded like he had at least one scientific report on his side. But the report looks only at the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. It compares deforestation rates and incidence of wildfires in the FSC certified area with the rate in the rest of the Biosphere Reserve. The report was published by Rainforest Alliance, the FSC accredited certifying body that certified the community logging concession in 1998. This is not a scientific report as the reference implied. Neither does the report justify Griscom’s claim that FSC certified logging operations result in less emissions than non-FSC certified logging operations.

Griscom mentioned that carbon is stored in wooden products produced from “sustainably managed forests”. Patrick Alley, from Global Witness, pointed out that there are carbon emissions associated with transporting wood from, say, Brazil to China where it is manufactured into furniture and then exported to Europe. After a while the furniture may be thrown away, at which point the carbon stored is returned to the atmosphere. Of course, the timber industry is keen to claim carbon credits for carbon stored in wood products. Alley asked whether these emissions were included in Griscom’s calculations. “Great question,” replied Griscom. “The more you can push the envelope and integrate the data, the better.” Unfortunately, it appears that Griscom’s calculations do not include emissions from transporting timber or wood products.

Griscom mentioned that “Engaging with local participation is often not talked about enough.” His presentation was no execption. Griscom told us about “spectral signatures of logged forest” and the “normalised difference fraction index”, but we heard nothing from him about the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who live in and near the forests.

The techno blitz continued with Alessandro Bassini from WHRC, who told us about NBAR compositing, MODIS, a Regression Tree Model and a Univariate Decision Tree (neither of which, he pointed out, had anything to do with trees).

The final presentation came from WHRC’s Josef Kellndorfer who talked about radar technology to measure forests. “There’s some good stuff out there for bringing in data about carbon stocks,” Kellndorfer told us. Like “Fully orthorectified (SRTM for terrain correction) and radiometrically calibrated mosiac data,” for example.

The bombshell came near the end of the side event. Patrick Van Laake of the International Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation noted that one of Kellndorfer slides showed that there was a level of error in the data of plus or minus 19 tons carbon per hectare. “How reliable is this for comparing carbon stocks over time?” asked Van Laake. Kellndorfer replied that even though the data was approximate, it was an improvement on even less reliable data or no data at all.

This, then, is the state of the art of measuring carbon in forests. This is the data that WHRC, The Nature Conservancy and others are proposing should be used to trade carbon credits from REDD projects. A multi-billion dollar market is to be created, based on data that is accurate to plus or minus 19 tons of carbon per hectare over an area of forests covering well over one billion hectares (globally it is something like four billion hectares). As REDD-Monitor suggested in an earlier post, maybe, just maybe, WHRC is not a reliable advisor on REDD.

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