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October 9th, 2008
What role can geospatial tools play in carbon emissions trading markets?

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Jeff Thurston — "To understand emissions requires an understanding of the dynamics of carbon cycling. Geospatial tools can be applied across the entire carbon cycling chain
including biological processes, physical infrastructure design as well
as the policy and financial interactions that support it."

Matt Ball — "There are many critics of carbon trading, and most fault difficulties
related to: assessing pollution levels, ongoing monitoring,
enforcement, and the overall complexity of the system. Geospatial
technologies are ideally suited to each of these four issues, providing
a credible and science-based means for assessment, monitoring and
enforcement, and lending some transparency to help reduce the
complexity of the systems."

This column is sponsored by www.esri.com
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These tools play a diverse role. They are
not limited to biological functions commonly associated with the
production of carbon.  To understand emissions requires an
understanding of the dynamics of carbon cycling. Geospatial tools can
be applied across the entire carbon cycling chain including biological
processes, physical infrastructure design as well as the policy and
financial interactions that support it.

When it comes to carbon, the
temptation is to approach it as giant accounting exercise. This works
real well from a office where input-x is added up and subtracted
y-output times, and divided by three. But carbon cycling is the result
of a series of events and processes, some more direct than others, and
often arising at different scales and time. Furthermore, biological
interactions are often speeded up with temperature and moisture
increases. Yet, one would be unwise to think that efficient building
modeling can’t contribute toward reducing carbon emissions. These tools
have a key role to play in assessing, monitoring and understanding
these processes, but also more efficient development.

Role and framework
Although we have been angling toward more concrete definitions for the
shape this role will take, José Manuel Durão Barroso,  President of the
European Commission in a speech October 8, 2008 in Brussels said,
“Our Second Strategic Energy Review, which will appear next month
[Nov], will contain more details on what needs to be done on
sustainability, competitiveness and security of supply.” Thus, a basic
question that remains, surrounds the need for a comprehensive long-term
strategy. With such a strategy then policy, supply, technology and
development can begin with definitive goals. Without a strategy, the
framework for building a system of commerce based on emission trading
has no baseline from which to begin. Ideally traded carbon credits will
be evaluated on the basis of their value.

Geospatial tools can be either coarse in application or more finely
tuned to processes associated with carbon evolution, exchange and
transfer. If the later, then geospatial tools play a bigger role toward
developing a understanding about how the processes of carbon dynamics
work – thus how they can be assessed. This also connects them more
closely to policy development. Just like the stock market is the tool
for exchanging stocks, these geospatial tools and geoinformation are
the required tools for carbon trading.

Alternatively, assessing carbon emission and measuring it (properly)
will evolve from the design and production of the right tools, only
after understanding the carbon processes adequately. Therefore,
research is also needed.

The market for quality
To be frank, given the current issues surrounding the accounting
systems of financial institutions, I do not think carbon trading will
enjoy much opportunity under a speculative eye. People will be
demanding transparency, regulation and a clear understanding as to how
how carbon credits were obtained, their nature, their value and their
attractiveness for trading at a future date.

The market for carbon emission trading will be of high value, but
entail higher levels of scrutiny. This offers great potential to the
geospatial community – to quantify carbon value.
Geo-professionals ought to consider themselves as the people holding
holding the technology to bring carbon trading to fruition and as a
viable form of trading pursuant to a healthy, sustainable earth.

This week the EU stated that
it wants emission generator’s to pay special taxes.  And while coal
generation is likely to receive the bulk of attention, one might very
well make the case that over along period of time, reclaimed land with
coniferous trees can perform a high level of carbon sequestration.
Additionally, changed agricultural practices could also sequester large
amounts of carbon, besides conserving water and reducing soil impacts.
The evolution of carbon from agricultural practices is not
insignificant.

Understanding the system
The point is: if we solely look at emissions apart from other human
activities, then we miss a better understanding of the dynamics of
carbon cycling. Prudent investment in carbon credits would seem to
dictate that we know how our buildings are designed, our farm food
produced and how geography relates to communities and carbon emissions
in a broader way.

To reach this understanding, geospatial tools have a pivotal role.
But it will require that the geospatial community work together,
integrating tools, data, and understanding far more than we do now.

There are some real opportunities here to begin new projects based
upon a return in carbon value. Imagine you are not paid in cash today,
but in carbon equivalents (that you can sell). Imagine a value is
assigned to quality water, from which your equipment is purchased.

Data integration, modeling and uncertainty
Data integration is a key as carbon trading grows in importance. The
highest quality (most dependable) credits will be based on
understandable data and results. To understand the processes of carbon
dynamics will mean that many sources of information must work together,
to enable decisions and modeling. Predictability will matter, as will
uncertainty.

Geospatial tools are the tools of the future. They will be used more
widely and likely include more sensors and analysis functionality.

Further reading:

GIS / CAD for a New ‘Geographic Carbon Cap and Trade’ Scheme

Carbon Report Available: Data and Statistics

Linking Economy to the Environment

Why Geography and GIS Are Necessary for Carbon Trading

UK: National Initiatives for Climate Change Indicators from Land Use

Design, Build and Construct: The Zero Carbon House

The Geography and GIS Link: Carbon ‘Cap and Trade’

“How do new developments in ‘green’ technologies relate to the geospatial industry?”

The Geography of Carbon Trade: GIS and the New EU Policy 

 

Carbon emissions trading is a market-driven means to reduce and
control pollution by providing economic incentives. It’s often referred
to as cap and trade, because the idea is for the government to set a
limit, and then companies are required to meet that limit either by
reducing emissions or purchasing credits from others in order not to
exceed the cap. There are active trading programs underway right now,
with the largest market in the European Union. The money in the system
predominantly goes toward environmental issues, so it’s often seen as a
win-win for issues of sustainability.

There are many critics of carbon trading, and most fault
difficulties related to: assessing pollution levels, ongoing
monitoring, enforcement, and the overall complexity of the system.
Geospatial technologies are ideally suited to each of these four
issues, providing a credible and science-based means for assessment,
monitoring and enforcement, and lending some transparency to help
reduce the complexity of the systems.

Ecological Services


There’s growing interest in the role that forests play in combating
global warming. The ecological services of forests to process and store
carbon makes forests an important component of any carbon reduction
strategy. An alliance of businesses, governments and conservation
groups recently joined together as The Forests Dialogue
on a joint-statement regarding the important role of forests to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions and capture carbon. There’s a parallel effort
underway in the agricultural community to assess and benefit from
greenhouse gas offsets for farms.

With deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries
(REDD) contributing roughly 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas
emissions, an idea that’s gaining ground is to pay poorer countries to
preserve their forests in order to offset pollution from wealthier
developed countries. The carbon brokers are looking at this scenario,
and a United Nations climate treaty could greatly validate the idea.
The Forests Dialogue Group cautions that any cap and trade for reducing
deforestation needs to benefit those countries that are currently doing
a good job with conservation as well as those that are seeing rapid
deforestation. And the system needs to factor in poverty reduction and
macroeconomic development plans in order to reduce the pressures on
forests.

The greatest difficulty for this scenario to come about is the need
to closely monitor forests for preservation. Geospatial technology will
be a critical tool to both evaluate the baseline carbon contributions
of a given forest or country, and the tools will provide the means to
monitor forests to ensure that they’re long-term carbon reduction
contribution stays stable.

Carbon Capture and Storage

There are ongoing efforts to develop technology to capture carbon as
it is emitted from smokestacks and other sources and to store that
carbon for the long term. Carbon storage or sequestration is typically
accomplished using geological formations such as coal seams or depleted
oil reserves as reservoirs to hold carbon emissions that are pumped
underground. There are a large number of such projects worldwide, and
ongoing research into the efficacy of this soltuion.

Carbon sequestration requires detailed knowledge of geological
formations. The knowledge of where to store carbon is a geospatial
problem, and the monitoring of the storage facilities requires a sensor
and location-based approach. Researchers at MIT have developed a Carbon Management Geographic Information System in
order to take a detailed systems-based approach to understanding the
cost-effectiveness of storage and overall efficiency of competing
options.

Geospatial technologies are ideally suited to bring together
disparate data such as the locations of power plants, industrial sites,
potential storage sites, and infrastructure along with socioeconomic
data in order to perform in-depth analysis that provides transparency
into the process.

The issue of carbon emissions is a complex problem that requires
detailed measurement and analysis. The geospatial toolset will play a
large role in assessing pollution sources and sinks in order to apply
equitable and fair measures for this emerging market. The global carbon
trading market has been doubling in size every year, with more than $40
billion carbon-dioxide permits traded this year. This puts the market
on pace to be a $200 billion market by 2010, and the geospatial
community can profit greatly by providing needed services.

REFERENCES

Focus Sharpens on Forests for Climate Fix, Reuters, Wed., Oct. 8

International Consensus on Forests’ Vital Role in Fighting Climate Change

Agriculture’s Role in Mitigating Climate Change, American Farmland Trust

Carbon Storage Project Map, Scottish Centre for Carbon Storage

Global Carbon-Trading Market Enriches World’s Energy Desks

Tax vs. Trade, noted economist Jeffrey Sachs favors a climate tax

 

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