Through mapping Ireland’s terrain, one company seeks to reduce carbon levels

Terrain-AI was granted €5m from Microsoft and SFI to gather insights on land usage

Terain-AI may only have been up and running for a little less than a year but it is already making its mark. Photograph: iStock

Terain-AI may only have been up and running for a little less than a year but it is already making its mark. Photograph: iStock

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There been a lot of focus lately on the dreaded C word. No, not Covid, nor the increasingly early celebration of Christmas. The C word in question is climate change.

In recent weeks we have heard dire warnings from scientists and climate experts about our chances of keeping the warming of the planet to the 1.5 degree limit seen as our chance to avoid the worst impacts on our climate during the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow.

The impact of our changing climate is being seen in increased extreme weather events, wildfires and floods. As the COP26 conference heard, the situation is urgent and world leaders need to take effective action before it is too late.

Developing those effective policies is key to success and one Irish-based project is hoping to play a major role in helping to cut global emissions and help tackle the problem of climate change. Terrain-AI aims to improve the understanding of the impact of human activity on land use and how it relates to climate change, with the aim of improving carbon measurement that will inform future carbon reduction strategies.

Work began in December last year, when Microsoft Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland announced they would co-fund Terrain-AI to the tune of €5 million.

Although the research would initially focus on Ireland, Terrain-AI has always had its eye on the broader global aim of reducing carbon emissions, in time sharing its insights and the models it developed with other countries.

The project uses a number of different data sources, capturing data from satellites and airborne platforms, as well as in-field instruments, from more than 20 test sites strategically located across the country, spanning all types of habitat from grasslands, croplands, forestry, wetlands, peatlands, to urban areas.

It is being led by Maynooth University, with Dr Rowan Fealy and Prof Tim McCarthy as principal investigators, in collaboration with Teagasc, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, Dublin City University, and University of Limerick.

Dr Fealy comes from a climate change modelling background, but has moved into the are of mitigation.

For real, effective change at a policy level, we need to be looking at a more nuanced approach

“ I think we have sufficient knowledge from the climate change point of view to know that if we don’t do something about atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, we know there’s going to be change,” he says. “I suppose up until now over my research career, what I’ve seen is a disjoint between what we know we need to do and what we actually implement or do on the ground.

“And a part of that, to my mind, has been this knowledge gap. There’s a lack of information at that scale at which we can affect change. That really has been the core of Terrain-AI.”

The project has the potential to make a difference to climate policy. Ireland currently reports its emissions on a sectoral basis as part of our international obligations. But imposing sectoral targets can be polarising. Last month saw farmers take to the streets of Dublin to voice their opposition to the Climate Action Plan and reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). A motorcade of more than 80 tractors took part in the protest outside Government buildings, with speakers saying farmers were being portrayed as “the bad guys” in the conversation around climate change and having demands foisted on them to cut carbon emissions.

Meanwhile a focus on heavy cuts in transport emissions has led to some disquiet there. High fuel prices, due in part to the carbon tax that was increased in Budget 2022, have hit hauliers and led to further protests in Dublin. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has ruled out rolling back the carbon tax increase, saying it wasn’t the right move for the planet.

“We saw recently on the back of the Glasgow Conference of Parties that, like it or not, now’s the time to act. And we know from an international point of view that the longer we leave it, the more action that will ultimately be required,” said Dr Fealy.

But for real, effective change at a policy level, we need to be looking at a more nuanced approach.

“The problem is there is a disjoint between national sector targets – transportation, commercial industry, waste, residential, the usual categories – and implementing policies,” he said. “What we think we’ve identified is effectively a mismatch. There’s a difference in the scale at which we effect policy and the scale at which we can deliver effective policy. Fundamentally that’s something that needs to be bridged.

Photograph: iStock
Photograph: iStock

“We can see very clear evidence of this; for more than 20 years now, we have had the cows versus cars debate in Ireland.

“What we’re trying to say here is look, the argument is actually far more nuanced than that. You actually need to explicitly understand the geography of where the emission is coming from. If you understand where the emission is coming from, you can deliver a refined policy that targets those emissions.”

That is where Terrain-AI comes in. The project is designed to integrate insights and data from multiple land types and multiple sectors into a modelling framework that will inform more effective policies to reduce carbon emissions, future land use practices to achieve reduced carbon outputs such as precision farming, carbon sequestration of grassland, and new approaches to public transport, tree planting in urban areas and so on.

“Globally, cities account for less than 3 per cent of the usable land area. They account for about 60 to 80 per cent of global energy use, and they account for more than 70 percent of CO2 emissions. If we’re to deliver refined policies focused on our urban areas, we potentially can deliver much more effective policies.

“So for example, if we were to implement a modal shift in transport, implementing that nationally, would be very, very difficult. Whereas within a matter of days, we could implement a very efficient transportation policy in our urban areas that would significantly impact on our CO2 emissions arising from the landscape,” said Dr Fealy.

“It’s by understanding where your emissions are coming from, you can deliver that much more effective policy.”

'It’s complex. There’s been a lot of sleepless nights to be very honest, a lot of sleepless weeks at this point'

Terrain-AI is tackling the challenge on a number of fronts. First, there is developing new standards to advance the remote monitoring, verification and reporting.

Then there is building the knowledge that allows policymakers to inform these more effective policies, and pitching that to those affected by the changes.

“If we say to a farmer, you have to cull your herd in order for Ireland to meet its emissions, they will resist that and understandably so. If we flip the argument and say: ‘Climate change is happening. If you’re to build in a degree of climate resilience into your farm, reducing your stocking rate by 5 per cent might be something that’s worth considering’,” Dr Fealy says. “Part of this is with regards to delivering more effective policy but the other bit is actually rethinking how we position the teaching.”

Terain-AI may only have been up and running for a little less than a year but it is already making its mark. It was recently named “best use of AI for social good” at the AI Awards, beating out comeptition from AI_Premie, an AI-powered solution in the management of preeclampsia; ApisProtect, which provides real-time hive monitoring powered by intelligent sensor technology; and Automated Regulatory Monitoring (ARM) which offers a platform that can review thousands of notifications every day to flag compliance-related risks.

Terrain-AI has already completed its initial base line monitoring of sites throughout Ireland, capturing data from an airplane with specialised sensors flying over test sites.

More frequent surveying of those test sites will be carried out with drones with a more granular level of information, and machine learning to help analse the datasets.

While the project is capturing data from land types in Ireland, the intention is to design a cloud platform that can use the insights from the Irish findings and be shared with other countries to help them explore land usage and carbon reduction in their own jurisdictions.

“It’s complex. There’s been a lot of sleepless nights to be very honest, a lot of sleepless weeks at this point. Even if we’re not successful or don’t achieve all our aims by the end of next year, by bringing together all these disparate networks and the different disciplines, I think we will have achieved an absolutely huge in terms of laying the grounds for a very solid foundation for policy formation, not just in Ireland. We’re also creating a framework or a testbed here in Ireland that can be taken up in other jurisdictions and applied,” says Dr Fealy.

“This isn’t an Irish solution to an Irish problem. These problems are ubiquitous, all countries report sectorally they all have these challenges, and the way we’re trying to overcome it I think is novel.”

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