The international climate talks have repeatedly bogged down in disputes over transparency and verification, but on one issue, technology is offering a solution.
New forest monitoring technology from tech giants Google and Cisco is starting to come online, allowing detailed tracking of land-use changes, particularly deforestation. The technology combines satellite images, maps and current and historical data for analysis. One system is being designed as a "planetary skin" with a network of sensors across the region and scientists on the ground to raise alerts in time to take action.
The almost real-time monitoring these systems offer may be what world leaders need to lock down a deal on a key component of an international climate treaty: REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.
The idea behind REDD — details of an agreement were still being worked out this morning, particularly questions of funding levels and reduction targets — is to help poorer nations preserve natural forests that are threatened by logging and clear-cutting for crops and grazing. Forests can be valuable carbon sinks, with tropical forests absorbing about 18 percent of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuels. Global deforestation both eliminates that natural service and contributes an estimated 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Measuring stored carbon and tracking deforestation is no easy task, though.
Most developing nations don't have accurate data on the carbon content of their forests, or the resources to track deforestation rates. And with experts warning that billions in Western funding will be vulnerable to corruption in REDD countries, technology that can monitor deforestation is vital.
The Tracking Power of Satellites
In Copenhagen last week, Google and the Carnegie Institution for Science unveiled their prototype technology for tracking and measuring changes in forest cover on a global scale.
The CLASlite system, developed at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, uses free satellite images and sophisticated analytical techniques to create highly detailed, three-dimensional maps of forest cover. Scientists can search the maps for signs of deforestation and other degradation.
"With this technology, it's now possible for scientists to analyze raw satellite imagery data and extract meaningful information about the world's forests," explained Google engineering manager Rebecca Moore and environment manager Amy Luers.
Lead scientist Greg Asner and his Carnegie team have already begun training workshops for potential CLASlite users in the Amazon and Andes regions of South America.
With Google moving the technology online, it's becoming even easier — and cheaper — for monitors in potential REDD nations to keep tabs on the forested land.
The online system also runs faster than its non-Internet counterpart, meaning authorities can more quickly detect illegal logging and other rapid changes in forest cover and take action before it's too late. Eventually, the online platform could let independent verifiers access deforestation data to make sure REDD-funded countries keep their word.
Though it's still in testing stages, the technology will be publicly available as a "not for profit service" as early as next year, Google says. The team plans to bring forest monitoring capability to the Congo basin, Southeast Asia and other areas of Latin America next year.
Sensors in a Planetary Skin
A collaboration between Cisco Systems and NASA is also showing promise to ease some questions of accountability and verification. It aims to merge existing and an incoming stream of data from "space, airborne, maritime, terrestrial and people-based sensor networks" into a global "nervous system"— a Planetary Skin — that can sense and predict environmental trends.
A pilot project, the Rainforest Skin, is scheduled to launch next year with the intention to more accurately analyze carbon content in the world's rainforests. The project will also explore ways to integrate isolated sensors into a larger network.
According to NASA senior research scientist Chris Potter, researchers will use NASA's MODIS and Landsat satellite instruments to capture images of forest cover in humid tropical regions on a daily or bi-weekly basis.
"We feed that data at every point on the globe into NASA computer simulation models running at Ames Research Center that estimate the carbon content of the forests and woodlands everywhere as they grow or are converted to another land use," Potter explained.
The data could be used to show international auditors whether tropical nations had indeed cut carbon emissions from deforestation.
"The same NASA computer model predictions can scale out to the national level to monitor and verify any other reports of carbon emissions from deforestation rates and patterns," Potter said.
"That has all been implemented already on the Planetary Skin platform, just not rolled out to many users yet."
Their work comes alongside other efforts by teams at the Virginia carbon consulting firm Winrock International, and at the Woods Hole Research Institute in Massachusetts, where scientists have begun calculating the amount of carbon absorbed in particular forest regions using biomass maps with resolutions as fine as 500 meters.
Like Google, the Planetary Skin Institute plans to make its data publicly available through an online platform once the project gets off the ground. NASA and Cisco also plan to invite input from experts at the United Nations, businesses, policy groups, non-governmental organizations and universities worldwide.
Scientists caution there's more work to be done to further develop supercomputing capacity, as well as connect numerous data systems into a environment-monitoring network. But Potter says systems like Rainforest Skin have potential to start providing real solutions to pressing questions sooner than we think.
"The core technology is ready to use now, and we believe our data and model predictions to be highly accurate today," Potter said. "The issue is how and when to deliver it to governments, business, and the general public."
(Illustrations: Planetary Skin; CLASlite)