While much has been written about the potential of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by protecting tropical forests, a proposed program to do just that has been challenged by a number of factors, including concerns about the accuracy of measuring for carbon reductions. Failure to properly account for carbon could undermine the effectiveness of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program as a tool for mitigating climate change and securing benefits for local people. At worst, lack of rigorous carbon accounting could lead to perverse outcomes like increased degradation of rainforests through industrial logging, outright financial fraud, and even discourage investments in greener energy sources like solar.
John O. Niles
To help address the technical issues that underpin carbon measurement, the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have launched a new Certificate in Advanced Terrestrial Carbon Accounting. The program is led by John O. Niles, Director of Climate and Forests at WWF-US and a past lecturer in global carbon science and policy at UC San Diego. The course will also feature guest lecturers on GIS, remote sensing, field measurements, allometry, and other fields related to carbon accounting.
Niles says that while most people will assume the program is just about REDD+, it actually has broader applications, especially given increased interest in carbon emissions from the agricultural sector.
“It is as intensive and competitive course, with six modules to provide attending professionals all the tools and skills they need to mathematically model carbon in terrestrial systems,” Niles said. “The course is structured around the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Good Practice Guidelines for greenhouse gas inventories. But these guidelines were never intended for REDD+.”
“The certificate program is aimed at professionals who are already working in the field of reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries (REDD) and related fields such as climate smart agriculture. It is not for those people just dipping their toes in the waters of terrestrial carbon.”
In an April interview with Mongabay.com, Niles answered some questions about the new course.
Rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN O. NILES
Mongabay.com: What is the new program? What will participants learn?
John O. Niles: The new program is a Certificate in Advanced Terrestrial Carbon Accounting that is being accredited by the University of California, San Diego. This new international certificate program will be held this August for 4 weeks on the sunny campus in southern California. It is as intensive and competitive course, with six modules to provide attending professionals all the tools and skills they need to mathematically model carbon in terrestrial systems. The six modules include GIS, remote sensing, field measurements, allometry, and a strong emphasis on pulling all the data together with nerdy, but essential, statistics for geospatial modeling. The course is structured around the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Good Practice Guidelines for greenhouse gas inventories. But these guidelines were never intended for REDD+. The guidelines are very valuable but also quite challenging to use in practice. The certificate program is aimed at professionals who are already working in the field of reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries (REDD) and related fields such as climate smart agriculture. It is not for those people just dipping their toes in the waters of terrestrial carbon.
Mongabay.com: Are there other programs like this?
John O. Niles: To our knowledge there is no course that teaches terrestrial carbon accounting at such an advanced level, for such a long period, resulting in a certificate accredited by a major international university. There are a few similar training opportunities but most are much more basic, such as the GHG Management Institute’s on-line course in forests and land use carbon. The Rainforest Coalition has also provided some excellent training in terrestrial carbon. But As far as we know this is the first advanced, accredited, substantial six-course certificate in how to measure, model and account for biotic carbon.
Mongabay.com: What was the inspiration for the new program?
Giesel Library at UCSD. Photo courtesy of UCSD.
John O. Niles: For REDD+ to succeed in coming years, it must evolve to include large scale performance-based conservation incentive agreements. The original allure of REDD was that developing countries that showed a real measurable reduction in forest greenhouse gas emissions would be compensated. And that compensation would be based on the number of emissions averted. In practice, this means that countries must be able to accurately measure and report the carbon stocks and fluxes in various types of forests, and they must be able to estimate credible emission reductions. However, the ability to accurately generate reliable emissions reductions estimates is located disproportionately in countries that are not classified as “developing”. REDD+ is supposed to provide incentives to developing countries so there must be a concerted effort to train professionals in all countries. We have specifically tried to have a wide range of applicants from all types of countries for this new certificate. We have already seen more applications than we have room for the first year. And we are proud that more than 60% are coming from the least developed countries. So the inspiration is if REDD+ is to succeed, all countries must be able to estimate forest carbon at high standards. Due to its intensity, length and focus on statistics, the new carbon accounting certificate will help disseminate advanced skills and build a next generation of teachers worldwide. A big focus of the course is not just on doing good forest carbon math, but also applying the new skills to REDD+ reference levels and forest monitoring systems. For example, very few people know that the IPCC Good Practice Guidelines suggest that key variables (in our terms, emissions factors and activity data) should be submitted to peer-reviewed publications and/or the IPCC’s Emission Factor Database. So we will be helping the people in the course develop the skills and knowledge of how to do good carbon accounting and then how to publish peer-reviewed papers and submit key information to the IPCC’s Emissions Factor Database.
Mongabay.com: But isn’t it odd that such a course is being held in America? Should the course be held in places with more need?
John O. Niles: We get asked the question a lot. The short answer is “yes” and the long answer is “yes but it will take a little time to do so”. Courses like this should be held in all countries, rich and poor, developed and developing. Our intention is to see how the first year goes in California and then to explore whether we can internationalize the course and maintain the highest academic standards and teaching excellence. Moving the instruction to universities and colleges in various countries is part of our three-year plan. We think the best way to internationalize this advanced technical training is to gather the best and the brightest, students and teachers, and run the first international advanced certificate. We will learn what works and what doesn’t when teaching the material. Then we will tweak the course and begin exploring if and how we can evolve the instruction to other top notch universities worldwide.
Mongabay.com: Who is involved in the program?
John O. Niles: Dozens of people and their organizations have been helping to launch the new international certificate in advanced terrestrial carbon accounting. The main movers and shakers have been various University of California San Diego (UCSD) people and organizations. These include some of the best and brightest people in the world-renown UCSD Extension program, the Sustainability Solution Institute, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the incredibly innovative California Institute of Information Telecommunications and Information Technology (CALIT2). One of the most important graphs in modern planetary sciences is the Keeling Curve showing steadily rising CO2 concentrations. This curve was developed by Ralph Keeling, who was a professor at Scripps for many years. CALIT2 is an amazing platform for collaborative technology-driven innovation.
In addition to the great people at the University of California, San Diego, WWF US has been an amazingly supportive organization. WWF clearly understood the theory of change behind the course from the initial discussions. Lou Leonard, Ginette Hemley, Marcia Marsh and other leaders at WWF US were the first real believers and supporters. Other instrumental people have been Naikoa Aguilar-Amuchastegui, a great WWF forest carbon specialist who taught a similar course in Madre de Dios, Peru last year. The course would never have happened without the Tropical Forest Group and their tenacious director, Jeff Metcalfe. We also have some amazing folks on our Board of Advisors, including one of my most important role models, Benoit Bosquet of the World Bank. Also on the Board of Advisors are Toby Janson-Smith who has been doing great work in REDD+ for a decade and one of the most important land use and carbon modelers on Earth, Dr. Holly Gibbs. In terms of course instructors, Dr. Stuart Sandin is an assistant professor at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and one of the best biostatistics around. He has an innate ability to teach really powerful and complex statistics and excels at transmitting mathematical knowledge for conservation. We are lucky to have some of the Board of Advisors teaching lectures and we’re hoping to announce a few other luminaries in their respective fields very soon.
Rainforest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler
Mongabay.com: What is the near-term [e.g. current] and medium-term outlook [3-5 years] for REDD+ professionals?
John O. Niles: The global environmental community has done some amazing innovation in the REDD+ space. We see a whole new level of excitement and new forms of cooperation between governments, the private sector, communities, non-profits, and academics. The best example of this is the REDD+ partnership between Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and Macquarie Bank. FFI is the oldest international conservation group. Macquarie Bank is known as a hard hitting investment bank that manages hundreds of billions of dollars. These two organizations came together around REDD+ to explore collaboration and joint projects.
The reason I start with this is REDD+ is an active space for innovative partnership, risk taking and pushing boundaries. REDD+ most continue to evolve. And for that to happen, REDD+ practitioners must evolve. Right now there are a handful of folks who can do forest carbon accounting really well. This is not to say that forest carbon has to be complex. It doesn’t. It just has to be good. But given the variability of forests and the lack of a magical instrument to estimate terrestrial carbon from space, it takes special skills. We need many REDD+ practitioners to grow their skills and then become the next crop of teachers. We need to see the number of advanced carbon measurers grow by several orders of magnitude. Climate change is not going away and REDD+ continues to be a place of innovation and progress. There are real funds available for countries that crack open the nut for doing credible pay-for-performance REDD+ systems. So in the short term, I see REDD+ professionals upgrading their skills so they can access large sums of innovative new conservation finance. We need people from all over the world with strong skills to demonstrate that facilities like the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility can execute large progressive forms of international environmental cooperation. And they need to do so to a degree of confidence that donors and the private sector stay engaged in saving forests to fight climate change. In the medium term, I see the balance shifting so that there is parity in where expertise lies. That is why we are so excited about the course. Our ultimate goal is to help achieve a vision where many countries do their own training so they can ultimately better know and manage their forest resource values.