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Using satellites and AI, Israeli climate tech maps out where carbon is hiding

Cited as a company with ‘global potential’ by UN official tasked with designing global carbon market regulations, Albo Climate already has projects in Ecuador, Africa and US

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Screenshot of an interactive map showing a section of a forest in Ecuador in which the red denotes lack of Above-Ground Carbon, green indicates an increase and white means no change. (Courtesy: Albo Climate)
Screenshot of an interactive map showing a section of a forest in Ecuador in which the red denotes lack of Above-Ground Carbon, green indicates an increase and white means no change. (Courtesy: Albo Climate)

An Israeli company is combining artificial intelligence with satellite data in a potentially game-changing method for measuring carbon absorption on land — and eventually also at sea.

In doing so, Albo Climate, comprised mainly of Israeli tech specialists partnered with environmental experts from overseas, looks set to contribute to the battle to curb global warming and climate change by helping to scale up the removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

The Tel Aviv-based company, established in 2019, is able to use data from satellite-mounted sensors to create a detailed map of where carbon is being stored away, allowing landowners and governments to profit by selling offset credits to polluting companies.

It does this by first amassing real carbon data that has been collected by hand, for example by measuring tree trunk diameters to calculate the increase in biomass (see below), or taking soil samples for analysis by laboratories. It does this each time it tackles a new type of habitat.

Using machine learning, the company teaches the tech to combine the data from the satellite sensors — which can scan vegetation both above ground and up to 30 centimeters (one foot) below, where the soil and roots are — with the real-world information, allowing it to recognize patterns that can be used as the basis for carbon predictions in similar settings elsewhere.

“AI finds correlations that a human wouldn’t,” said Ariella Charny, chief operation officer for Albo.

Part of the Albo Climate team (from left): COO Ariella Charny, CEO Dr Jacques Amselem, VP AI R&D Prof Andrei Sharf, Marketing Manager Sharona Shanyder. (Moshe Jonathan Gordon Radian)

All life on the planet, from humans to the smallest plant, is carbon-based.

For hundreds of millions of years, nature has balanced the carbon that enters the atmosphere with that which leaves it and becomes stored. Respiration, for example, emits CO2, as do volcanoes.

Plants, as well as seaweed and ocean phytoplankton, absorb it when they photosynthesize to make glucose, a carbohydrate. When plants die, they take the carbon with them, eventually turning into carbon-storing materials such as coal.

But that balance has been thrown off kilter by industrialization, which has sent carbon dioxide emissions through the roof. When coal, or wood, is burned, for example, it releases the CO2 it previously stored.

The world is committed — in principle at least — to cutting emissions of carbon dioxide in order to slow global warming.

Screenshot of an interactive map showing a section of African forest in which the red denotes a decline in Above-Ground Carbon, the green an increase, and the white no change. (Courtesy: Albo Climate)

For those unable or unwilling to cut emissions, cap and trade systems have been put in place, allowing them to pollute and pay for the same amount of CO2 they are releasing to be sequestered elsewhere.

Most of the companies storing carbon and selling credits are nature-based, and their methods range from conserving forests to using sustainable agricultural methods. By using Albo’s data, they can get a good idea of how much carbon they are storing and how much they can then offset.

Albo is not the first to try mapping out where carbon is being stored. In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization published what it said was the first global carbon map, and others have also put out maps.

But according to Charny, these tend to be general and grainy compared with Albo’s maps, which can predict the carbon values of anything from an entire forest to a plot of just 100 square meters (just over 1,000 square feet).

The company is currently trying to reach a resolution of 50 centimeters squared (a quarter of a square meter, or 2.7 square feet) per pixel.

Among the advantages offered by Albo, according to founder and CEO Jacques Amselem, are that it is quicker and cheaper than the manual measurement methods, does not include breakable hardware, can measure difficult-to-access places such as tropical rainforests, and presents the results in a visual, graphic form that is easier to grasp and often more scientifically accurate than lengthy, written reports.

Screenshot of an interactive map showing Above-Ground Carbon stocks in parts of the Pacific Northwest. (Courtesy: Albo Climate)

In addition, it can monitor regularly (usually once a year) over time to ensure that the same forest that was storing carbon and earning money for it isn’t logged or hasn’t burned down and become a carbon dioxide emitter.

A global firm that verifies carbon credit accuracy is nearing the end of its approval process with Albo.

Screenshot of an interactive map of parts of the US Midwest. The green indicates high Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) values while the brown represents lower ones. (Courtesy: Albo Climate)

The company has nonetheless already signed a number of deals to provide its mapping services.

These include analyzing Ecuador’s Chocó Andino de Pichincha Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; checking carbon-based biomass in soil used to grow corn and soy in the US midwest for US-based, Israeli precision agriculture company, Taranis; developing a new voluntary carbon registry for forest-based projects for Finnish sustainable finance company Likvidi; and monitoring the biomass of vulnerable tropical forests in several Sub-Saharan African countries, starting with Cameroon, for Mauritius-based clean power company, Tembo.

Screenshot of an interactive map showing losses and gains of carbon for one year in a forest in Kentucky, USA. Red indicates losses, green is for gains and white is for no change. (Courtesy: Albo Climate)

The Congo region of sub-Saharan Africa is home to a rainforest second in size only to the Amazon, though it rarely garners as much attention. Annual deforestation rates there have exceeded a million hectares (2.5 million acres) over recent years, according to Mongabay, an environmental news site.

Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, DR Congo. (Cai Tjeenk Willink, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

It remains unclear whether the money generated by carbon credits will ever be able to beat the sums offered by fossil fuel, mining, and logging corporations.

According to Charny, just a couple of dozen companies worldwide are presently offering remote sensing technologies for carbon measurement, with very few combining above and below-ground measurements.

Albo is currently working on a tool to measure ocean-based carbon sequestration for initiatives such as kelp farms. It is also in advanced talks with an Israeli university for the launch of several satellites dedicated to climate research and data harvesting.

At present, Albo takes data, most of it open source, from existing satellites, using information gleaned by radar, hyperspectral cameras, and laser-driven lidar technology.

From right: Shelly Dvir, deputy director of Business Roundtable Israel, Victor Weiss, co-director of the Center for Climate Rehabilitation, Perumal Arumugam, head of the UNFCCC team developing a global carbon market, and Gideon Behar the Foreign Ministry’s special climate envoy, at Israel’s first conference on carbon sequestration, Shefayim, June 30, 2022. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Last month, Perumal Arumugam, a senior United Nations official involved in developing regulations for a global carbon trading market, told the first Israeli conference on carbon sequestration that he saw particular global potential in Albo Climate’s product, as well as those of drip-irrigation company Netafim, which has developed a unique water-and methane-saving system for irrigating rice.

Albo Climate originally set out to map wetlands that could be dried out to reduce mosquito-related diseases such as Zika. Its name is taken from the mosquito, Aedes albopictus.

After the global investment business Techstars selected Albo for funding, the firm decided to focus its technology on the climate instead.

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