Ground truth: The missing link in carbon credit initiatives

  • Written by Andres Winograd
    19 December 2023
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This blog was co-written by Maurits Kruisheer, data and climate expert at Akvo.


In the age of climate crisis, initiatives to offset carbon emissions, increase biodiversity, and contribute to sustainability have proliferated. These initiatives set out to balance economic development with environmental and social considerations, fostering long-term resilience and positive contributions to communities and the planet. However, the carbon market and other climate credit initiatives have come under scrutiny for concerns regarding transparency, effectiveness, and ethical considerations. Critics argue that these systems, designed to incentivise and regulate emissions reductions, often lack clear and standardised accounting methods, making it challenging to accurately measure and verify the claimed environmental benefits. Credible data is crucial here. As the urgency to address the climate crisis intensifies, the need for globally coordinated mechanisms becomes increasingly apparent to ensure the credibility and effectiveness of climate credit systems. Ground truthing, i.e. obtaining robust empirical evidence from the field to validate model assumptions, is one of those mechanisms, and allows organisations to quantify, certify, and maximise their impact.


Validating climate and development initiatives using ground truth data

Ground truthing - the process of verifying information on the ground through structured data collection tools, direct observation, and local knowledge - can significantly enhance the effectiveness and integrity of climate credit and other development initiatives. By bridging the gap between models and real-world impacts, ground truthing provides crucial data to validate success, engage community members, and drive decision making. 


  • Contextual understanding and validation: At Akvo, we often see very simplified models to determine interventions. If you never see the context or talk to citizens, you may miss out on important factors affecting the usefulness of your activities. Often, credit systems are based on data gathered via satellite imagery of other geospatial data. However, this data alone might lack the context required to make informed decisions. Ground truth data provides the local context necessary to interpret this data correctly. It allows organisations to confirm the accuracy of the data by comparing it with actual conditions on the ground. If discrepancies between geospatial data and ground observations arise, it prompts further investigation and potential data correction. In the context of climate credit schemes, on-the-ground verification helps ensure that claimed emissions reductions or carbon sequestration activities are occurring as intended. In practice, this means that ground truthing aims to mitigate over-pricing or under-pricing credits. This is a win-win for both investors and end beneficiaries. As for organisations acting as intermediaries, they reap the benefits of an enhanced credibility based on the thoroughness of their measurement methodologies. 
  • Validating and calibrating models: Machine learning models can be used to simulate various scenarios and anticipate future outcomes, challenges, and opportunities. Ground truth data not only refines the models' spatial and temporal resolutions but also improves their predictive power, making them valuable tools for addressing real-world challenges and informing evidence-based solutions. When integrated into the modelling process, this firsthand, context-specific information ensures that the models are more closely aligned with the complexities of the real world. Consequently, the models become more accurate, reliable, and robust, enabling better predictions and decision-making. Most importantly, these systems are flexible and equipped for long-term sustainability, allowing them to continue improving existing information and modelling with new data inputs.
  • Community engagement: Local communities, often most affected by climate change and development projects, play a vital role in ground truthing by providing insights into the actual outcomes of initiatives, identifying potential unintended consequences, and contributing traditional ecological knowledge. Collecting ground truth data means direct engagement with the local community, allowing enumerators to observe subtle nuances, cultural factors, or social dynamics that are crucial for accurate data interpretation. This ensures that climate initiatives are not only environmentally sustainable but also socially responsible, promoting inclusive and equitable development. This grassroots engagement strengthens the legitimacy of climate credit schemes and development initiatives, as local stakeholders become active participants in shaping and monitoring projects.


In summary, incorporating ground truthing into climate credit and other development initiatives enhances transparency, accountability, and overall success by validating claims, addressing local realities, all while promoting community involvement. This approach helps build more resilient and effective strategies for mitigating climate change and promoting sustainable development.



Examples of ground truthing in action

To optimise crop management and food security, satellite data can be used to monitor vegetation health. Ground truth data collected from field visits can validate the satellite observations, ensuring that interventions are targeted effectively. Akvo is currently supporting the Rabobank Acorn programme, which helps smallholder farmers transition to agroforestry by offering their sequestered carbon as carbon removal units to responsible corporations. The Acorn programme uses biomass modelling - in which the growth of trees and vegetation is monitored - in order to assess the sequestered carbon and reward the farmers. This type of biomass modelling requires a high-precision methodology with multiple different sources of data, including data from the ground. 


Akvo is responsible for gathering ground truth inputs from local partners. The benefits of ground truthing here go beyond validating and improving Acorn’s machine learning models. The ground truthing process ensures that farmers get properly and fairly compensated and that investors are not overpaying, which in turn leads to programmes being strengthened - ground truth will make evident which farmers require more capacity building, quality inputs, or technical assistance from local implementers in order to improve their plots. Ultimately, it puts farmers back in control of their income and their land, and helps to improve soil quality and biodiversity. 




Best practices and considerations

Ground truth data collection is not easy work, and some ground truth data can even hinder the use of remote technologies in development programmes. Some areas are remote and hard to reach with difficult terrain, and enumerators need to be thoroughly trained in order to ensure data accuracy and standardisation. In Akvo’s experience, the crucial elements to success are:

  • Local presence: For ground truthing to be logistically feasible and sustainable, as well as contextually relevant, it’s important to have enumerators on the ground that understand the local context and can collaborate readily with local actors. 
  • Data and sector knowledge: It is essential that the actors collecting the data understand the models behind the remote data collection technologies as well as the sector in which they are operating, be it biodiversity, carbon monitoring, or agroforestry. For example, what are the margins for error and how are they calculated? This helps actors to better guide enumerators in the field, as well as informing feedback when data is not coming in as expected.
  • Robust training and data standardisation: Ensuring that ground truth data is collected and recorded consistently is essential for accurate validation. For example, how do you ensure that a banana tree is measured in the same way in Ghana and in Guatemala? Standardised protocols and training are crucial, both in ensuring accuracy and allowing scalability. 


Overall, this results in a ground truthing approach which is cost-effective and scalable worldwide, allowing organisations to quantify and maximise their impact, generating meaningful change worldwide. 


Do you want to know more about Akvo’s approach to ground truthing?

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Andres Winograd

Andres Winograd is a project officer based in Bogotá, Colombia.

Posted in: Agriculture, Climate, Data services