Municipalities are increasingly interested in using light detection and radar (LiDAR) technology to support a variety of markets, services, and planning processes. Consequently, they are contemplating how best to justify investments in improved data when not all of the investments’ costs and benefits are amenable to quantitative estimation. They are also contemplating who benefits from the investments and how to address any inequities in either costs or benefits. This paper reviews the drivers and co-benefits of expanded LiDAR data investment by local government entities and presents a case study of forest carbon markets in California to illuminate how this investment compares to investment in the acquisition of field sampling and other data. The study suggests that LiDAR can be cost-competitive with traditional field-sampling approaches under certain conditions or assumptions, and it may offer advantages and some benefits that may not accrue from field-based approaches. In addition, the study reinforces the conclusion of other research that conditions, approach, and assumptions strongly influence analysis outcomes, in turn reinforcing the need to tailor analyses to the research question at hand. Although the case study lends insight into the tools available for assessing the costs and benefits of LiDAR data acquisition, several uncertainties remain, including how LiDAR and other improved data fit into national policy dialogues and program funding discussions.
Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions