Show me the money: When conservation finance is held hostage by GIS data

Authors: Lauren Gifford*, University of Colorado, Boulder, Alyssa Whitcraft, University of Maryland
Topics: Environment, Land Use and Land Cover Change, Geographic Information Science and Systems
Keywords: GIS, forest conservation, carbon offsets, political ecology, STS
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Balcony B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

What happens when technology used to monitor, report and verify financialized conservation practices challenges—and disrupts—the market mechanism? Forest carbon offset projects are gaining traction in the US and Canada, used to simultaneously draw funding to conservation initiatives while administratively offsetting industrial carbon emissions. But many projects are held up in the verification step of the process when remotely sensed land use data can’t be reconciled with on the ground reporting. This delay, which can be driven by an inability to reconcile remotely sensed information with ground “truth”, increases the transition costs of offset projects multiple fold, and in certain cases makes the project financially burdensome. This phenomenon raises questions of how financialized land-management schemes prove ‘additionality’ when there are multiple, contested interpretations of land use. It also challenges a dominant knowledge claim of remotely sensed data as ‘technical,’ apolitical, or outside the domain of politics. Using empirical data from A) forest carbon offset projects in North America, and B) extensive remote sensing technical applications globally, this paper engages emerging debates around the hybridity of conservation knowledge production amid contested human and non-human data outputs. Drawing on Coase Theorem and political economic theories of the financialzation of nature, it ultimately questions the value of market-based environmental management when transition costs are increasingly prohibitive. This paper is co-written by a critical political ecologist with an expertise in climate finance, and a physical geographer with expertise in remote sensing Earth observations of agriculture and land use change.

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