From the Archives/

Dr. D. James Baker and Dr. Gary Richards

As a result of a 2008 convening at Bellagio, two leading Scientists founded the Global Forests Observations Initiative. It uses technology to monitor carbon stored in forests to allow us to reach our climate targets.

Dr. D. James Baker and his colleague Dr. Gary Richards convened a meeting at Bellagio in 2008 aimed at bringing new technology to bear on monitoring the carbon stored in forests as part of an effort to reduce climate change. The meeting brought together representatives from forest science, international institutions, and developing countries, where many of the largest forests exist, to develop a plan for future work. The outcome of the meeting was to lay the groundwork for a new international program, the Global Forest Observations Initiative, sponsored by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the international Global Earth Observations Program. Today that program is helping developing countries use satellite remote sensing and GIS (Geographic Information System) technology for measurement, monitoring, reporting, and verification of carbon changes in forests and from other land use. Dr. Baker was the former Administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and has served on Presidential Commissions, chaired numerous national and international advisory committees, and testified frequently to the United States Congress on oceans, climate, and environmental issues.

The fact that plants and trees capture and store carbon dioxide has been known since the early 1800s. Yet it wasn’t until recently that the idea of global measurements of the carbon in forests to mitigate climate change became feasible. It was possible only with new technologies like satellite-borne instruments that can measure the distribution of forests over broad areas together with improved scientific information about how trees and their roots grow, absorb, and store carbon. As with all new techniques, there was some skepticism about whether satellites could monitor forests as well as traditional land-based techniques. The Bellagio convening and subsequent developments helped alleviate that worry.

  • Preserving forests is an important part – at least 25% – of the carbon storage we need to keep global temperatures from rising to unsustainable levels.
    Dr. D James Baker

Given the importance of forests in storing carbon, one of the questions we wanted to address at Bellagio was how global forest carbon could be measured and monitored and how the techniques could be improved. Technology advances have led to satellite instruments that are dedicated to forests and other land use. For example, satellites are very good at detecting small but growing forest fires. In fact, there’s a program now called Global Forest Watch that uses satellite instruments to detect forest fires around the world. We built on The Rockefeller Foundation forestry project at the Clinton Foundation that had started in 2008 to help identify representative forest areas on three continents. Forest monitoring and protection projects were developed with local community support in Guyana, Kenya, Tanzania, Cambodia, and Indonesia. The results from the Bellagio convening helped guide the development of these projects.

At Bellagio, our aim was to put together a roadmap on how we might use these new ideas to tackle the long-standing problem of how much carbon is stored in forests. Once we had that roadmap and the program developed, we were able to bring together elected and appointed officials and experts from the appropriate forestry agencies of the relevant countries. We also worked with high-level officials in the US, Australia, Norway, and the Netherlands, and international agencies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank. Some of the nonprofit collaborators in our subsequent program were environmental organizations, like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, based in Switzerland.

The convening at Bellagio was very successful – we identified how to move forward, where funding could come from for international programs, and what issues arise when helping developing countries whose priorities are not necessarily on forestry, but instead on tackling hunger and providing critical infrastructure.

Using our Bellagio Meeting Report as guidance, we began to implement plans for a global forest plan that would utilize all the new satellite data. We turned to the relevant international agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, the G7’s Committee on Earth Observations from Space (CEOS) and the newly formed international Global Earth Observations Program who welcomed our initiative. By 2010, we were able to have all the pieces in place for a satellite-based forest program that monitors all of Earth’s major forests. It all started at Bellagio, where we had the opportunity to bring people together and develop our initial ideas.

The outlook for the future is promising. Today, the UN-sponsored Global Forest Observations Initiative provides support to 70 international partners in 80 countries and 450 individual programs. The program covers all the major forested regions in Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America.

Today, the data collected from satellites and other measurements are used as input to carbon modeling programs that yield the carbon levels in the forest. There is also great interest in ‘carbon credits’ that are based on the carbon stored in trees and other parts of the land sector and are tradeable. This helps us answer such questions as: how much carbon do we own and how can we protect it? How can we make the most of its value, and ensure it can be traded on either private sector markets or by governments?  All of this information is important for mitigating climate change.

This new information is especially helpful to small countries because with it, they can tell how much carbon is stored in the trees of their forests. They have developed computer-based systems that use the latest science to estimate carbon content from satellites and field studies. They can then use this information to get funding to conserve their forests from developed countries like Norway or Germany, or from agencies like the World Bank. The funds received can be used for low-carbon development projects, thus multiplying the climate-positive impact. Today, Guyana, Brazil, Indonesia, and many other developing countries are benefiting from this arrangement.

Read on to glimpse Dr. D. James Baker and Dr. Gary Richard’s experience in their own words.

With global warming and other climate changes driven by carbon emissions now accelerating, it is more important than ever to curb emissions and put a price on carbon. Since trees in tropical countries are among the best ways to take up and store carbon, planting new trees and slowing the deforestation of major forests is an immediate way to deal with the problem. Such projects, when linked to carbon markets, will also be an important source of income for poor communities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that up to 20 percent of emissions could be avoided with afforestation and avoiding deforestation. This cannot be done without national systems to monitor and measure forest carbon and carbon emissions. The establishment of national systems will provide the necessary information and framework for local and regional projects. In turn, there must be global standards within which national systems operate. Our group used the Bellagio Center to reach important new agreements about how global forest carbon could be measured and monitored for both national carbon emissions accounting and markets for use in poverty reduction projects. It was there that we decided to establish the international Carbon Measurement Collaborative and an associated Non-Governmental Organizations Roundtable on Carbon and Poverty Reduction. Because of the focus on national systems and cooperative input from non-governmental organizations, the Bellagio meeting was a turning point in the development of forest carbon measurements.

Explore more

To find out more about Dr. Baker and his colleagues’ work, you can read some of his joint papers, including “Achieving forest carbon information with higher certainty: A five-part plan” from 2010, or “The Challenge of Sustaining Ocean Observations” from 2019.