FOPEN Lidar

3 minute read • updated August 29, 2018

Major trends

Consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental and social impacts of the products they buy and the commodities they use — labels such as organic, fair trade, B corporations, recycled paper and plastic products, MSC certification, free range / pastured eggs, and many other labels are routinely parsed and used to guide purchase decisions.

Within the energy sector, customers in a broad range of geographies, economic situations, and political persuasions are shifting their preference to renewable and non-emissive electricity sources. National and subnational governments are instituting requirements conservation, efficiency, offset, and other requirements intended to mitigate and even eliminate the environmental consequences of economic activity. The restoration of tropical and temperate forests, as well as the growth of new forests (afforestation), are some of the top approaches to reducing carbon emissions, as identified by the Drawdown project.

Hypothesis

Carbon offset programs recognize that the growth of new forest (afforestation), or the prevention of the removal of existing forest for agriculture or paper products (deforestation), are essential factors in limiting increased atmospheric CO2 concentration. Statutes such as California’s 2006 AB 32, and the cap-and-trade system it engendered, have created a need for detailed protocols to quantify the amount of carbon contained in a stand of forest, and to track this quantity over time. These protocols currently require high amounts of labor by expert, highly-trained teams. Everything about the current process is heavy-weight, from identifying potential project stites to gaining approval to fulfilling the measuring and monitoring requirements.

Existing remote sensing technologies such as multispectral imaging, synthetic aperture radar, and commodity LIDAR do not return a signal which is sufficient to estimate the biomass; this is primarily because these imaging modalities cannot see through the foliage which obscures the trunks and branches. But so called foliage-penetrating (FOPEN) LIDAR may offer a solution, by using a special laser setup that can differentiate between reflections from leaves and those from other objects below.

With suitable calibration to ground truth, FOPEN LIDAR imaging recorded from a drone or low-flying aircraft could replace or supplement the manual measurement protocols. Not only could this massively reduce the time, cost, and operational complexity associated with offset calculations, but it may make smaller projects feasible and open up a long tail of forest conservation.

Story

Forest cover is increasingly recognized as the dominant lever in our various methods of limiting greenhouse gas concentration - trees actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and their impact can be scaled up via afforestation. But for this to occur at scale, the value of these activities must be incorporated into market prices, and this in turn rests on efficient and accurate measurement and verification.

If this forest biomass measurement problem were solved, economically and at scale, the incentive structures that could be enacted in this information context could carry tremendous positive consequences for collective behavior. Once carbon offsets for other emitting activities are reliable, and can be bought and sold on an open and transparent market, the broad and growing consumer preferences for environmentally benign products can be satisfied at scale.

What we have validated

We know of strong demand for the product from a major energy company that is dedicated to offsetting the emissions of its core business activities. The current carbon offset markets do not provide the volume, cost structure, and accountability to support their needs.

Risks and Questions

  • Is FOPEN LIDAR technology available at reasonable cost, reliable in its operation, and does it produce signal which supports the biomass estimates needed for this application?
  • What is the total potential impact of this technology, if broadly adopted? Will it be applicable in cases where the manual protocol is not economically viable, thus expanding the total addressable market?
  • Are the economic and environmental impacts of these measurements dependent on AB32-like rules being enacted in a given jurisdiction? Is it possible to generate consumer demand for these activities in the absence of offset markets created by regulation?
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