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Geospatial technology in the context of the VCM

Published: 30 Sep 2022
Last updated: 30 Sep 2022

​​Geospatial technology is an emerging field of study concerned with the geographic mapping and analysis of the Earth. This technology is increasingly being used within the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM) to help establish and monitor carbon offset projects, leveraging tools such as remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS). Whilst remote sensing is concerned with the acquisition of Earth referenced data, GIS is the software used to analyse this data and produce meaningful project-specific insights. The technology has a wide range of applications, although its uptake has proved particularly popular in the assessment of nature-based solutions. More frequently, developers have been implementing these tools to seek out the best sites for new projects and to figure out ways to optimise their climate impact. Investors in the space have also taken a keen interest in this technology, which allows them to monitor the progress of projects in which they have invested and identify key risks which may pose a threat.

Abatable’s insights on the use of geospatial technology for nature-based projects within the VCM

At Abatable, we have been exploring how geospatial technology may help to verify the quality of carbon projects. We believe this technology may be implemented within our own rigorous assessment framework, across multiple methodological elements, those being:

  • Evidence of additionality: Data is used to visually understand the wider context of the project. Is the project located within a protected area? Irrespective of its protective status, has there been documented forest loss or degradation in the project area or local region over the last 10 years?
  • Robustness and quantification of GHG emissions: For conservation projects, data is used to estimate deforestation or degradation rates at the project, sub-national and national level. For carbon removal projects, models can be used to estimate biomass growth or soil carbon sequestration rates based on species mix and reference region selected. Data can be used to assess risks of leakage and the legitimacy of the reference region used.
  • Non-permanence risks: Data is used to identify the project’s susceptibility to natural hazards by analysing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events using historical datasets (e.g. fire risk maps, frequency of hurricanes)
  • Evidence of co-benefits: Geospatial data can in some cases be used to measure the biodiversity profile of a project area (e.g. diversity of tree species in natural set-asides or project area).

Please note that for more information on how Abatable looks at quality in the VCM, please refer to our recent white paper here.

Key opportunities exist in the use of geospatial technology within the VCM. The use of remote sensing and GIS analysis allows nature-based carbon project developers to assess the feasibility of their projects in a more cost effective way. Using global biomass maps from initiatives such as the GEDI mission, project developers can quantify carbon at a faster and more affordable rate whilst maintaining high accuracy. Traditional methods of estimating carbon involve using sample data collected by teams in the field, which should represent the target area. It has been proven that deploying LiDAR sensors for carbon quantification allows for up to 90% accuracy relative to field-based estimates.

Analysing this imagery over time allows developers to pick out key spatial and temporal patterns and monitor trends such as deforestation rates in near-real time. For early stage projects, this imagery may also help in the design stage by identifying optimum sites and accounting for factors such as road access and elevation.

Key challenges however still exist for the use of geospatial technology solutions.

  1. Access to quality data: The availability of accurate data is limited with only low and medium resolution imagery available to the public, provided by satellites such as Landsat and Sentinel. Higher resolution imagery tends to be in the hands of private satellite or drone providers, which may be purchased, although this tends to be at a very high cost. In addition, publicly available and accurate datasets produced from LiDAR imaging tend to be limited in scope and only available in the United States and the Nordic countries as a result of nationwide timber biomass mapping initiatives. In the Global South, high accuracy data is less readily available and the need for ground truthing remains important. In regions such as the tropics where vegetation is dense, remote sensing techniques tend to encounter the issue of saturation, which is when the biomass is too dense to be analysed accurately. Most sensors also fail to penetrate beneath the canopy and cloud coverage outside of LiDAR sensors which continue to be relatively expensive to operate.
  2. Spatial resolution impacts the confidence level of insights: The accuracy of geospatial data is largely determined by the quality of imagery produced which is dependent on the spatial, temporal and spectral resolution of a sensor. Spatial resolution is a particularly important factor as this determines the size of the smallest object which can be spotted. The spatial resolution of sensors typically ranges from kilometres (low) to centimetres (high), which makes a huge difference in clarity of an image and has a large influence over the accuracy of ecological mapping.
  3. Mapping biodiversity with existing remote sensing techniques remains cost-prohibitive: Mapping biodiversity is possible predominantly using hyperspectral sensors. Due to their high spectral resolution, these sensors are able to differentiate the discrete differences in spectral absorption between species. This approach is currently deployed at a very low rate and the data produced requires very powerful processing power before meaningful insights may be produced.

Abatable’s approach to geospatial technology and the announcement of a

To-date, our existing approach has focused on leveraging free geospatial data services to conduct an initial quality screening. This has proven an effective way to understand the broader context of a carbon offsetting project and land use trends, as for example, regional deforestation threats. However, to address the legitimacy and accuracy of carbon estimation, baseline verification and a thorough assessment of non-permanence risks, we are aware that more accurate results can come from the use of third-party geospatial service providers and specialised consultants.

Realising the potential of geospatial technology, Abatable has been conducting rigorous research into this field, identifying over 50 geospatial service providers and engaging with more than a quarter of these companies to gain insights on the topic. These conversations have guided our understanding that existing technologies exist to go beyond publicly available geospatial data. A partnership model to test suitability of geospatial technology on a project-by-project basis felt the best way to proceed for us.

New partnership with Geotree

Abatable and Geotree logos

We are delighted to announce that we have selected Geotree, a London-based MRV technology company supporting nature-based projects, as our partner of choice in this space. This partnership will enable us to better assess the quality of projects and leverage a more quantitative approach. Combining their remote sensing, biogeochemical modelling, data science and carbon markets expertise, Geotree works to provide cutting-edge analytics for carbon project development. We look forward to exchanging services and expertise with Geotree and exploring collaboration opportunities for the development of future products and solutions.

By working with Geotree, our clients and carbon project developers in our network will gain better access to emerging technologies in this field such as dynamic baseline calculations for conservation type projects and the mapping of natural hazards to understand the risks to nature-based solutions.

We look forward to replicating this partnership model beyond nature-based solutions, and exploring the suitability of geospatial technologies for other use cases.

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