Global Forest Carbon Monitoring

Forests are the lungs of the Earth: they take in and store carbon dioxide and release the oxygen we breathe. This is something we intuitively understand, but we have not yet developed practical and cost-effective ways of accounting for this value in our economic decisions and transactions. The result is that tropical countries are incentivized to clear their forests in order to develop economically, and we collectively lose global forests at a rate of 48 football fields every minute—turning the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sink into our second-largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has forged international leadership addressing this problem. Under the UNFCCC, REDD+ is a mechanism to quantify and value the climate change mitigation services forests provide, creating sustainable pathways to economic development for tropical countries. Nearly seventy developing countries are in various phases of REDD+ implementation and must develop and execute Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) systems in order to receive performance-based payments for REDD+.

While this is a huge step forward, public financing alone is not sufficient to shift economic incentives around land use in tropical countries. The required volume of performance-based payments to sustain REDD+ globally is estimated to be roughly $20B – $40B per year, or several times the total capital that has been pledged by donor governments to date. To meet global development and climate goals, the world needs to mobilize significant funds for performance-based payments in REDD+ over the next decade – beyond the scale of which the public sector alone can provide.

Technological breakthroughs in Earth observation can help address this challenge. Earth observation satellites are rapidly shrinking in size and cost while simultaneously improving in resolution and revisit rates – unlocking unprecedented opportunities for timely, high-resolution, wall-to-wall mapping of the world’s tropical forests. This offers new possibilities to develop different MRV systems for REDD+. “Next-generation” (automated, analytical) MRV tools can be developed to not only improve accuracy, efficiency, and capacity but also to inform low-carbon financial product innovation in order to unlock sustainable private financing for REDD+.

In partnership with Planet and The Erol Foundation, Asner Lab has developed a next-generation REDD+ MRV tool—a spatially explicit indicator of forest carbon stocks and emissions for the country of Peru that is automated monthly. The maps of carbon stocks were made by combining millions of hectares of airborne laser measurements of canopy height with thousands of high-resolution Planet Dove satellite images using advanced remote sensing data and machine learning algorithms.

Using this technology, our researchers were able to estimate a total of 6.9 billion metric tons of carbon stored aboveground in Peru’s diverse ecosystems, of which only 2.9 billion tons are found in protected areas. The new high-resolution monitoring approach also revealed the precise location of these carbon emissions, for example, in areas converted from forest to oil palm and cacao plantations, agricultural and urban areas, and gold mining.

This approach will serve as a transformative tool to quantify and monitor climate change mitigation services provided by tropical forests.

Project Website

The Erol Foundation


Peruvian Ministry of Environment