The 3 challenges of NCS

There is no doubt that society must both cut carbon emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere to be on track to stay under a 1.5ºC rise in global average temperatures. According to the IPCC, an increase past 1.5ºC is the point of no return, where the effects of climate change will be too severe to not have irreversible consequences. As this situation rises to the forefront of political and corporate agendas, the development of a successful carbon market is sure to continue, in which carbon credits will be an important factor for businesses to achieve carbon neutrality.  

Focusing on removing carbon from the atmosphere, there are two prevalent options: tech centered climate solutions and nature based climate solutions (NCS). Geoengineering consists of manmade technologies that pull carbon from the atmosphere, however, these technologies are not yet advanced enough to be used at a reasonable price point. NCS, on the other hand, uses strategies of natural carbon sinks to sequester carbon. Many projects are likely to focus on NCS because it follows a model that has already proven to be effective and can provide many other benefits such as increased biodiversity, increased soil fertility, and providing landscape aesthetics. Examples of NCS include growing kelp forests, reforestation, and increasing soil carbon. 

At CQuest, we focus on the NCS consisting of increasing soil carbon. In a carbon credit system, or any other system that incentivises businesses and landowners to reduce their emissions, increasing soil carbon content will be extremely valuable. However, there are three main concerns with this NCS: permanence, leakage, and additionality. The permanence of a project is concerning, because in order for an NCS to be effective, it must last by not rereleasing its stored carbon into the atmosphere and thus reversing its effects. A project is often considered permanent once it has existed for 100 years, however some projects in Australia sign up for a shorter period, in which the project lasts for only 25 years. One issue with the concept of permanence is the difference of interpretation between scientists, businesses and policymakers. It is important to be able to make trustworthy/resilient claims in order to compensate landowners for the actual effectiveness of their project. Leakage is when the decrease in carbon due to an NCS causes the increase of emissions elsewhere, thus defeating the purpose of the NCS. Currently, complicated statistical methods and simulations are used to estimate leakage due to economic forces. Proper measurement of leakage would keep landowners in check to make sure that their emissions are being reduced, not just moved to a different location. The final issue is additionality. Benefits from an NCS may have already been occurring without the NCS, and landowners could take advantage of this to receive more rewards for carbon sequestration. To solve this problem, an accurate baseline for business as usual carbon content in the project site must be established and it must be recognized when a project takes place due to additional carbon market funding. All carbon that is sequestered above the baseline counts as the additional carbon sequestered due to the new project and rewards for it can therefore be justified. There is currently no uniform method to calculate baselines for NCS projects however this is needed moving forward so landowners are prevented from taking credit for pre-existing terrestrial carbon. When accurate additionality, reduced leakage and increased permanence can be properly monitored, the corresponding rewards or consequences will be given in a carbon market and landowners will be less likely to be able to cheat the system with inaccurate measurements. 

Remote sensing can be a part of the solution to all three of these issues. Looking at past, present, and future satellite imagery can show how long a project has existed, how it has changed, and if it is removed. In combination with social data, satellite imagery can assess leakage in the market by observing changes in land use around the project area or in other areas that the land owner owns (see “spatial econometrics”). Finally, additionality can be measured with remote sensing because a baseline can be established by analyzing satellite imagery which can also help determine whether improved practices would have been adopted without the help of carbon financing. Specific wavelengths can determine the soil properties associated with the amount of soil carbon and vegetation in the project site to establish a precise measurement of the actual increase in terrestrial carbon in the project site after implementation. Remote sensing can further be used to monitor the surrounding areas and prompt investigation into regulatory practices, land use norms, and incentives in the area to determine if the project would have taken place in the absence of carbon market funding. Remote sensing offers a cost effective, accurate, and quick method of reducing the most common concerns surrounding NCS: permanence, leakage, and additionality. 

These solutions aren’t perfect, but it will require a whole set of tools to account for the clear shortcomings of NCS. In order to equip NCS with the defensibility to live up to its global potential we must utilize today’s cutting edge technologies to add transparency and validate carbon negative claims. 

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