As world leaders from 100 countries commit to halt and reverse deforestation within the next 9 years, they may find themselves turning to startups for help.
Backed by $19 billion in funding, governments including Brazil, Russia, Canada, China, Colombia, Indonesia, and the US agreed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030, according to a report from Bloomberg News.
The funding comes in the form of $7.2 billion in commitments from non-profits, philanthropic organizations, and companies to encourage deforestation-free soy and cattle production, and to scale investments in tree planting and other nature-based solutions.
“These great teeming ecosystems — these cathedrals of nature — are the lungs of our planet,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a prepared statement. “With today’s unprecedented pledges, we will have a chance to end humanity’s long history as nature’s conqueror, and instead become its custodian.”
Many of these solutions will be spurred by the work of startup companies that are trying to commercialize these solutions.
Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash
The drone revolution
When Droneseed raised $36 million earlier this year, the company and its investors likely didn’t know just how prescient the funding would be.
The Seattle-based startup is one of a squadron of drone and robotics companies that are aiming to accelerate reforestation initiatives around the world.
Canadian startup Flash Forest is another startup working with drone seeding to accelerate the work of planting for reforestation. And while the company hasn’t taken the all-encompassing approach to the movement that Droneseed has built out, it’s making strides with several announced pilot projects.
For its part, Droneseed has expanded beyond seeding to include carbon offset services and seed management and sorting to become a sort of one-stop-shop for reforestation after an event like a wildfire on timber land.
“A recent study came out stating that nationally we need to 6x seed collection and 2x nursery space to truly leverage reforestation to mitigate the worst effects of climate change,” Grant Canary, the co-founder and chief executive of Droneseed told TechCrunch. “We’re doing that work. We’ve expanded Silvaseed to be the largest private seed bank on the west coast. We also grow millions of seedlings each year and are doubling capacity.”
Estonian-based robotics company, Milrem Robotics (which started out as an autonomous tank manufacturer — and has literally beaten its swords into plowshares) and Skygrow are both making rolling, autonomous tree planting that could help efforts to plant as many as 1 trillion trees to mitigate climate change and restore forests.
Photo by Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash
Building an economics of natural capital
Forest restoration efforts are one seed that investors are looking to sprout into a blossoming industry, but financing, monitoring and market-making around the projects those technologies will support is another.
That’s why companies like NCX (the company previously known as Silviaterra), Pachama, and Cultivo have raised nearly $50 million between them from investors including the billionaire Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and his investment firm Time Ventures; the billionaire backed and Bill Gates-founded investor Breakthrough Energy Ventures; and Uber investor (and another billionaire) Chris Sacca and his Lowercarbon Capital.
These companies create marketplaces for forest offsets and monitor and manage the reforestation projects to prove their additionality — or how much extra carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere beyond a baseline thanks to their efforts.
In May, NCX put together the largest forestry offset ever assembled in the U.S. Stretching across 1.17 million acres and including 100 landowners in ten states, the offset was purchased by buyers including Microsoft, South Pole, and Shell Environmental Products.
“NCX puts carbon on the same economic footing as timber,” said founder and CEO Zack Parisa, in a statement. “We’ve combined satellite imagery, forest economics, and cutting-edge statistics to build a data-driven marketplace for landowners of all sizes.
NCX identifies forested acres that are likely to be harvested and rewards landowners that keep them growing. It’s a solution that connects landowners with net-zero pioneers to create climate impact with unprecedented scale and transparency.”
Photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash
If a tree falls in afforest can anyone hear it?
Drones, robots, geospatial imaging, and satellite monitoring are all impressive, but what about taking non-arable land and turning it back into forests.
That’s the goal from the wildly ambitious Terraformation, which has taken cash from Apollo Projects and a slew of high net worth Silicon Valley investors.
Terraformation’s founder, Yishan Wong, told The Guardian in a recent article that solving climate change is “a real stretch of the human race’s collective abilities… you want the simplest, most affordable solution because it will operate at enormous scale.”
Wong has found that solution in trees.
“We’ve already done the R&D,” said Wong. “A trillion trees has a very, very strong possibility of solving the [climate] problem.”
The company sells services to landowners providing them with a toolkit to reforest degraded land. That kit can include seed banks and nursery kits, financing packages, software and training for how to rehabilitate arid land. It also works with clients to sell carbon credits after the trees are planted.
The goal of planting 1 trillion trees might actually be too aggressive — and the role that trees play could be overstated, according to some scientists.
“There is a small but important role that forests can play in mitigating climate change,” said Joseph Veldman, a professor at Texas A&M University told The Guardian.
Part of the problem is simply the availability of land that can be reforested, which a recent Nature study estimated to be nearly 1.7 billion acres — that’s far less land than the 3 billion that Terraformation wants to restore.
While Terraformation is trying to make unproductive land more productive, some companies and researchers are looking at ways to genetically modify trees to improve their ability to sequester carbon dioxide and more resistant to pests.
That’s the goal of companies like Living Carbon, which is developing modified plants that can grow more quickly and store more carbon.
Some researchers are already pursuing genetically modified plants in the field. A report from the Canadian Broadcasting Company last year featured the work of Armand Séguin who began planting genetically modified poplars and spruce trees around his research outpost north of Quebec City.
“To me, this wasn’t something we were planning to develop at a larger scale, but it was proof of a concept,” he told the CBC. “We proved that it was feasible.”
A researcher in forest genomics for the Canadian Forestry Service, Séguin made his spruce trees immune to a certain pest.
“Now there are solutions where you can genetically modify organisms to reduce the use of chemicals and improve carbon sequestration,” said Séguin, “not only by [improving] photosynthesis but by making those plants more resilient to the environment.”