Timothy W. Foresman, PhD, is President of the International Centre for Remote Sensing Education. He has been director of United Nations Environment Programme’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment (Nairobi, Kenya) and national program manager for NASA’s Digital Earth (Washington, D.C.). He is editor of The History of Geographic Information Systems, 1998, Prentice Hall. Dr. Foresman was the Director-General for the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth (www.isde5.org).



And the Carbon is Growing

With due respect to Mr. Gershwin, more than cotton is growing this summertime. For the summer months, with families on vacation, we can assume that most of us, including members of Congress, have been enjoying some time off to recreate in the remaining warm days. But as summer winds down, it's time for all of us to demonstrate more awareness of the comprehensive nature of our planetary system, and to attend to our energy and security future as Earth's systems continue to behave strangely. The heat goes on and the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increase their volumetric share of our finite atmosphere.

But some people are paying attention. Through campaigns such as this year's Live Earth world concerts, rock stars and environmental celebrities like Al Gore are pushing more infotainment awareness of the risks we are facing from climate change. One response to these media actions is an increase in the number of people seeking to clean up their carbon footprints, wipe their environmental slates clean, and live a carbon-neutralized lifestyle. This, however, is not as easy as it looks.

We take a lot for granted in our daily professional and personal lives. Even if we walk to the train station, eat watercress sandwiches, and maintain our compost piles, we are still responsible for carbon emissions that continue to blanket the Earth's atmosphere and raise the global thermostat. For many folks, the path away from this carbon-based dilemma is through the absolution of our sins via carbon offsets or carbon credits. Guilt can be cleansed away with a simple checkoff for carbon offsets with your next airline trip to Machu Picchu or Cancun.

A growing set of carbon offset brokers are populating the web using the ‘voluntary' method that enables good citizens to pay off the carbon debits associated with their lifestyles. Prices currently range from $1 to $100 per ton for your carbon offsets. On the ‘regulated' market, the rates are also variable but more easily determined and monitored by agencies like the Chicago Climate Exchange (www.climateex.com) in the U.S. and others related to the Kyoto Protocols for Europe, Canada, Japan, and Australia. These are interesting times for the carbon markets—a growing phenomenon—with important consequences for the environment, for the economy, and for social dimension at village and city level.

Carbon offsets typically use money paid to the carbon brokerage firm to invest in activities that will help reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere—projects that would otherwise not be funded. Activities such as planting trees (both afforestation and reforestation) and financing renewable energy projects are most commonly documented for the carbon offset funds. And this is where the remote sensing world comes on stage.

It turns out, after some serious investigation, that the remote sensing community has not settled the issue of whether we can effectively and efficiently map, monitor, model, and manage carbon offset projects and programs. After a decade or so, our august and learned international remote sensing community has not defined the state-of-practice for applying carbon monitoring science to the nascent regulatory and certification structures for the carbon market. We lack standards. There are a curious few remote sensing scientists who have been making claims that only their unique capacity and license-protected methodologies can measure and calibrate carbon on the surface of the planet.

Thirty-five years after the ERTS1 launch in July 1972, this situation seems increasingly peculiar. The educated layperson might ask what we know about mapping and monitoring carbon? Why have billions of dollars been invested in our community and careers if we cannot seem to answer this question in a forthright and understandable manner?

Figure 1 The Carbon Offset Kit is an educational tool available to help people understand these concepts.

If we can understand how crooks on television shows like CSIare caught and incarcerated by a speck of dust at a crime scene, why can we not understand how to locate and measure the carbon in our county, our states, and anywhere Google Earth will take us?

Right now, you may be surprised to learn that the carbon market is growing without the benefit of fundamental calibration/validation (Cal/Val) methodologies. The reader is invited to investigate fully the status of the Kyoto Protocol CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) at http://cdm.unfccc.int for the state-of-practice as it is currently known by the policy makers.

My first scientific paper in the late 1970s documented the ability to measure the biomass of kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) off the waters of Southern California using Landsat data, a methodology that yielded an accuracy which rivaled Dr. Wheeler North's standards using aerial infrared photographic surveys. Professor Jack Estes, of University of California, Santa Barbara, created accurate phenological profiles for remote sensing of agricultural crops in the early 1970s, as did teams led by Professors John Jensen in South Carolina, Chris Johansen at LARS/Purdue, Kevin Price at Kansas, and Jim Tucker at Goddard. It is a bit embarrassing that the remote sensing community of talented geospatial specialists appears to be lagging far behind on the issue of carbon monitoring—especially at a time when we collectively need to focus on real programs that will help combine the financial markets with our industry and help drive down the carbon emissions, regardless of the particular pathway or program chosen.

As the carbon market grows, clever and enterprising people will begin to address the issue of Cal/Val. Perhaps the infusion of capital will stimulate a renaissance period for remote sensing. It would be a good tribute to the remote sensing community if a group of practical-minded scientists and engineers could present a clear pathway regarding carbon monitoring for vegetative biomass for both the regulated and volunteer carbon markets. Along the way, they could send a note to NASAand Congress.

The challenges are certainly out there. The opportunities are certainly out there. Perhaps we will soon witness remote sensing-based solutions for the carbon offset market out there as well.

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