Carbon Estimation Tools: A Primer


Decision-support tools are meant to make life easier, but sometimes even choosing the right tool can be tricky! This is especially true for carbon estimation tools. Fortunately, The CCRC can help. Here's a summary of the most important factors to consider when deciding which carbon estimation tool is appropriate for your needs, and a few helpful tables to boot. Print Version: 12 MB, PDF, 2 pp.

What is a tool?

Here on the CCRC, a tool can be anything from a specialized calculator to a map or a model; tools are often designed to generate scenarios and provide information or context for managerial decision-making.

Four Important Factors


Scale is perhaps the most important factor to consider when selecting the appropriate tool for carbon estimation. The tool's scale may range from global, national, or regional on down to stand or tree-level. As you may guess, a tool's scale defines its purpose and potential applications. Table 1 provides more detail on the appropriate scale for each tool, while a specific tool's "landing page" here on the CCRC can give you much more specific information about that tool's purpose and potential applications.

Charts and Graphs

Required Input Data
The issue of required input data is very closely related to the issue of scale. Some decision support tools are BYOD (bring your own data), while others draw FIA (Forest Inventory and Analysis) or other data that the Forest Service has been collecting for decades. Typically, the smaller or more precise the scale, the more likely you'll need to provide your own data. That's because FIA data are collected at a larger scale, using both remote sensing and field plots that are spaced at one plot per every 6,000 acres of forest. Statistics gives us many ways to determine an accurate sample size, but you don't need to be a statistics whiz to see why creating a stand- or even small county-level estimate using FIA data would lead to a very small sample size and inaccurate results! That's why most carbon estimation tools designed for smaller scales require more data - data which the user must often supply.


Accessibility and Ease of Use
Are you looking for outputs this afternoon or next month? Different tools require varying levels of user expertise and investments of time. Generally speaking, tools that don't require you to BYOD (bring your own data), tend to be easier to learn and use. On the other hand, models that yield spatially explicit and temporally dynamic results may need to be paramatized, or "tuned", a process that generally involves a certain degree of expertise. Among other things, table 2 provides a subjective ranking of ease-of-use for each carbon estimation tool.

Question Mark

Potential Applications
This topic is closely related to the issue of scale, but is more specific and personalized. It gets to the question of "what do you want to know and why?" Are you trying to inform national policy, decipher appropriate management actions, or communicate to the public about the benefits of local street trees? It's important to have some idea of what you'd like to accomplish when deciding what tool is appropriate. On the other hand, if you're completely new to the world of carbon estimation tools, merely browsing through the options offered will help you gain a better perspective of what information and options may be available.

bottom factors heading

Now that you're familiar with some of the criteria that might help to inform tool selection, take a look at the tables below. These can help you make a decision or narrow your options. Then, you can visit each tool's "landing page" on the CCRC for much more detailed information that may help you make your final decision!

Table 1
Decision-Support Tools by Spatial Scale and Forest Service Policy-level.

Table 1- Decision-Support Tools by Spatial Scale and Forest Service Policy-level

Table modified from Nick Skowronski, Climate Change Tools, NRS. Questions about the tools, email us?

hairline rule

Table 2
Decision-Support Tools

  Bring Your Own Data Spatial
of Use

COLE retrieves Forest Inventory and Analysis data for user-selected domain and converts it to ecosystem carbon and produces carbon yield tables.

No (Larger) County
to regional /
Minimal Time Investment

The CTCC Tree Carbon Calculator is the only tool approved by the Climate Action Reserve's Urban Forest Project Protocol for quantifying carbon dioxide sequestration from GHG tree planting projects.

minimal Tree Carbon sequestered
(stocks) and avoided;
CO2 equivalents of
energy savings
Major time investment

FVS is a stand-level vegetation growth simulator - many variants for U.S. regions and applications. FVS includes ecosystem and wood products carbon calculator.

Yes Forest Stand Growth and
Moderate time investment

i-Tree is a state-of-the-art software suite that provides urban forestry analysis and benefits assessment tools.

No Tree to
Urban forest
structure, economic
valuation of
ecosystem services
Minimal Time Investment

LANDIS is a spatially explicit landscape model designed to simulate forest landscape change over large spatial and temporal scales. LANDIS links to other models to assess climate change and carbon including a new link to the Century soil model. There are two main variants: LANDIS-4 and LANDIS-2.

Yes National Forest/
level projections
of forest
Major time investment

This work involves coupling several models to look at the carbon cycle from forest cycling to forest product carbon cycling in the Great Lakes States. The work couples BIOME-BGC (a forest ecosystem process model) to several wood and paper product life cycle models, in order to obtain better understanding of carbon accounting after products have left the forest.

Yes Forest Stand N/A Minimal Time Investment

Sustaining U.S. Forests and Managing Carbon under a Changing Climate: A Decision-support System for Land Managers. This work is focusing on developing forest dynamics models and will later work to couple these models with spatially explicit climate change scenarios.

Yes Landscape to
N/A Major time investment

A computer application that reads Forest Inventory and Analysis Program (FIA) data and generates state-level annualized estimates of carbon stocks on forestland based on FORCARB2 estimators

Yes State to
National Level
Minimal Time Investment

NASA's satellite-based model of productivity and carbon sequestration.

No Forest to
National Level
Minimal Time Investment

Forest ecosystem decision-support software that can be used by private land managers. This model utilizes fairly traditional growth and
yield modeling.

Yes Forest Stand Forest Inventory Moderate time investment
Minimal Time Investment
Minimal time investment < 2 hours
Moderate time investment
Moderate time investment < 1 week
Major time investment
Major time investment Consider partnering with a qualified research scientist

Table modified from Nick Skowronski, Climate Change Tools, NRS. Questions about the tools, email us?