Why the use of satellites and geospatial technology is more important than ever during extreme weather events
by Dr Niels Andela, Head of Remote Sensing at BeZero Carbon
Extreme weather events are at the forefront of climate-conscious minds around the world, as severe heatwaves, droughts, flooding, and raging wildfires have become increasingly commonplace over the past decades. This year the El Niño weather event is back to further threaten record-breaking temperatures, as the waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean become much warmer than usual.
We all know the impact of extreme weather on both human life and the environment can be devastating. Canada is facing its worst year of wildfires on record, and El Niño threatens to exacerbate drought and fire risk in Indonesia and the Amazon region. In our fight against climate change, these events jeopardise one of the most effective tools we have at hand – our trees and forests, which are key to mitigating against, and adapting to, the impact of global warming.
These events raise another question for the voluntary carbon market: with forestry carbon credits becoming increasingly popular with investors as an avenue to mitigate climate change, the market must find a way to effectively assess their exposure to carbon reversal risks caused by weather extremes, like wildfire.
These credits are effectively promises that governments, companies, and individuals can purchase to contribute towards their emissions reductions and the 1.5°C ambition by paying to plant or protect trees. A total of 661 million have been issued across the world, representing the bulk of the nature-based solutions sector group. Investors are keener than ever to buy forestry credits – half year issuance has grown by 164% in the first half of 2023 versus the same period in 2018.
Now, as the risk of extreme weather events threatens to damage our forests, the voluntary carbon market must incorporate an understanding of the associated risks and consequences for credit prices if we are to effectively leverage forestry carbon credits in our fight against climate change.
This is where satellite remote sensing technologies can help.
The ability of Earth observation and geospatial technology to provide actionable insights into how climate change influences weather patterns, and to warn communities of impending dangers to infrastructure and well-being, is indispensable. More specifically, satellite imagery and data offer unparalleled capabilities for monitoring and assessing weather extremes from climate change and El Niño.
For example, satellite imaging allows us to monitor emergencies arising from climate extremes, including heatwaves, hurricanes, flooding, or wildfires, in real time – this helps visualise the climate impacts on ecosystems in support of decision-making and human wellbeing, providing essential support to operational responses. Long-term records from flagship missions and modelling approaches can also help assess emerging risks more accurately. It provides context on global forest extent, carbon stocks, and forest health, and allows researchers to quantify the impacts of weather extremes on ecosystems and communities.
By extension of these capabilities, satellite imaging can also help assess the integrity of forestry carbon credits by measuring if carbon projects deliver on their promises.
Having access to near real-time satellite data provides an edge by enabling ongoing monitoring of projects and their potential impact on carbon emissions and sequestration. This allows for better risk management and timely intervention, if necessary. By monitoring vegetation conditions, weather patterns, and historical fire data, we can identify regions prone to wildfires – this information is critical when evaluating the risks associated with a particular carbon project.
To bake in risk, carbon ratings agencies like BeZero Carbon, where I am employed, incorporate satellite-derived data on emissions, land use changes, and forest health into their models and calculations when evaluating the efficacy of carbon projects. This helps determine more accurately the efficacy of carbon credits a project is eligible for.
Harnessing the predictive power of remote sensing to help evaluate the carbon performance of nature-based carbon credits will be essential for the voluntary carbon market – in order to scale the market, we need dependable and transparent information about the efficacy of carbon credits. Incorporating geospatial analysis into quality assessments such as carbon ratings is crucial in identifying which projects are likely subject to extreme weather risk – and help assess the likelihood of achieving their carbon claims in the face of extreme weather events and El Niño.
Novel monitoring tools and analytics from satellite remote sensing should therefore not just be seen as a ‘nice to have’ – they are crucial for weather phenomena like El Niño, saving lives and protecting carbon-storing ecosystems from the threat of natural hazards before they occur, while they occur, and even afterwards during the recovery process. The end result? Confident and informed decisions around carbon credit purchases.
Dr Niels Andela is Head of Remote Sensing at BeZero Carbon, a global carbon ratings agency. Niels is an expert on satellite monitoring of ecosystem disturbance and carbon stocks. Prior to BeZero, Niels developed novel methods to monitor wildfires and constrain their role in the carbon cycle at NASA for five years before he became a lecturer in remote sensing at Cardiff University. He holds a PhD in Earth Sciences from VU-University Amsterdam.