Nature-Based Contributions to Carbon Storage

Jamie Locke-Jones
Friday 26 November 2021

The need to explore new ways to store carbon emissions has become increasingly vital as the scale of the climate crisis becomes apparent. However, in the rush to explore new innovations in carbon storage technology, we can sometimes forget that nature has developed ingenious mechanisms to achieve the same end – and they have been around for millennia. As our efforts to contain global warming ramp up, scientists are developing new ways to understand and harness these mechanisms, and their efforts were a major subject of discussion at COP-26.

A panel at the UN Innovations Hub at COP26, titled “Measuring biodiversity as Nature’s C storage to inform future initiatives”, explored these developments. The session was organised by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and chaired by Professor Thomas Meagher, director of the University of St Andrews’ Global Challenges Forum

The panel: from outer space to underground (click to expand)

The central premise of this panel was that technological innovation has great potential to help us understand the relationship between biodiversity and Carbon storage in Earth’s ecosystems.  Such information is critical in supporting nature-based solutions to climate change through environmental policy.

Following an introduction by Prof Meagher, Dr Justin Moat of RBG Kew, provided an overview of the current technologies for remote sensing, emphasizing use of drone observation to derive detailed three-dimensional and hyperspectral representations of above-ground ecosystems at a level of resolution that enables detailed analysis all the way from entire forests to individual trees.  

This introduction was followed by flash presentations addressing observation from space (Dr Antje Ahrends, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; Zeren Yang, University of St Andrews), to near-Earth drones (Ximena Tagle Casapia, Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana, Perú), to underground using genomics (Dr Laura Martinez-Suz, RBG Kew; Prof Peter Kille, University of Cardiff).

Expert panellists provided perspectives on novel technologies (Dr Hugh Mortimer, UKRI-Science and Technology Facilities Council), interdisciplinarity (Dr Laura Meagher, Technology Development Group), impacts of data generated on institutional sustainability efforts (Rachel Purdon, RBG Kew), and reflections on scale of observation from space to drones to underground (Dr Justin Moat, RBG Kew).

An Aerial shot of Taynish, Dr Justin Moat, RBG Kew

The three critical elements of ongoing development

In concluding remarks, Prof Meagher noted that the session had provided multiple examples of how technological innovation supports and enhances measurement of biodiversity and its relationship to climate change, noting three critical elements of ongoing development.

Scale. Use of satellite imagery enables information to be captured across large areas, from local to national to regional scale, to provide an overview of the impacts of drivers such as agriculture and climate change. This helps to support policy development and governance practice, while also enabling investigation of changes that occur over decades so that we can capture dynamic cycles and trends.

Resolution.  The increasing resolution of satellite imagery, and the more recent innovation of drone-based surveys, allows an incredible level of detail in analysis of ecosystems, including three-dimensional images to capture not only the amount of Carbon storage in vegetation but also species composition and changes over time.  Such information supports policies for land-use as well as supporting other needs, such as the sustainable use of renewable forest resources.  The use of genomics tools (which Meagher regards as a form of remote sensing – enabling observation of underground biodiversity that often cannot be seen directly) allows us to better understand the role of soils in Carbon storage. For example, it was noted that soils contain far more Carbon than can be found in the whole of the Earth’s atmosphere.

A 3D scan of Taynish, Dr Justin Moat, RBG Kew

Technological innovation.  Novel imaging technologies will enable insights into biodiversity of ever-increasing resolution and sophistication. For example, hyper-spectral ‘snapshot’ equipment being developed at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – Space will provide an unprecedented level of detail in image generation. Miniaturisation and ruggedisation of these technologies will allow their deployment at increasingly sophisticated levels. One example is LIDAR, laser-based three-dimensional imaging equipment which used to require transportation via aircraft, but which can now be deployed on a much more local scale using drones and ground-based equipment. Genomic analysis, which used to only be possible in a laboratory, is now possible using equipment that will fit into a backpack and run off batteries in the field. These technological tools generate vast quantities of data, which are in turn integrated with other large data sets, such as climate data. This scale of data requires increasingly sophisticated tools of analysis, that are also under active development.  

Where are we now, and where are we heading?

There is a lot of technology available today to help us understand the link between biodiversity and carbon storage. We now have a vast resource of satellite images spanning decades, while the resolution and spectral capacity of our imaging equipment has itself continued to improve.  Drone-based surveys are increasing in prevalence as a means of measuring biodiversity, obtaining information similar to that obtained by satellite but at a much higher resolution, and with greater flexibility for implementing newly developed technology. Genomics tools are also being used for detailed analysis of biodiversity, including underground ecosystems, and our capacity for genomic analysis is making the transition from the laboratory to the field.

We are only now beginning to realise our capacity to develop new technologies, engineered to meet ambitions for the investigation of biodiversity and its contribution to large-scale cycles, including changes in biodiversity and its contribution to Carbon dynamics. One hope arising from the session chaired by Meagher is that we can hardly begin to imagine where we will be by 2050.  Looking back to where technology-based measurement of biodiversity was 30 years ago, what is possible now has exceeded all of our expectations.  From this perspective, the future of technology-based measurements of biodiversity and its relationship to nature-based climate change solutions appears bright.

In the future, we should be able to measure biodiversity and its function at a high resolution for any ecosystem on Earth.  Remote sensing technology like imaging and genomics will enable analysis of the very largest and smallest components of an ecosystem.  We should have well-established baselines and clear evidence-based policies, ensuring that the biodiversity resources so important to our future remain healthy and sustainable for generations to come.

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