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Drones are going to be replanting Oregon forests damaged by wildfires

A Droneseed employee bends over one of the company's drones in a clearing next to a row of trees.
Image Credit: Droneseed

Soon, the skies over wildfire-scarred Oregon will be dotted by robotic drones carrying payloads of seeds from native tree species damaged by 2020's historic fires in the region.

The drones will deliver these payloads across acres of Oregon countryside damaged by the Beachie Fires that hit the region in 2020 in an effort to restore the forests that were lost to the wildfires.

Funding for the drones and seeds, which are provided by the startup company Droneseed, comes from commerce giant Shopify. The company is paying Droneseed to reforest the damaged woods in an effort to offset greenhouse gas emissions from Shopify's operations.

In all, the trees should remove some 50,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 100 years.

Shopify's paying for all of this through a project brokered by Element Markets, a marketplace for renewable energy, emissions offsets and restoration projects, using a new kind of offset credit set up by the organization Climate Action Reserve.

The reforestation offset that CAR has created is designed to generate carbon credits that supposedly zero out a company's emissions by providing credits for carbon captured as new trees grow. Those credits are then issued to project developers like Droneseed, which are reforesting land -- so that they can be sold to companies like Shopify for their operations.

Companies have turned to forest offsets for a long time, because it's a seemingly easy way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Through their growth cycle, trees capture and store carbon, but, increasingly these "nature-based offsets" -- planting new trees (or not harvesting existing ones) or using different farming practices to store carbon in the soil -- have come under pretty heavy criticism.

MIT Technology Review did a deep dive into some of the forest offsets that companies bought over the years on the West Coast (where Droneseed has its project) and found that several of these projects did not remove the amounts of greenhouse gas that they were supposed to. Basically, the offset estimates were incredibly imprecise and projects did not the amounts of greenhouse gases that they estimated.

It's a problem with offset markets around the world.

Droneseed avoids the problem by planting new trees, which are definitely "additional" -- meaning its practices reduce more emissions than " business as usual". And its credits are issued to cover the upfront costs of reforestation and issued in advance of the offsets.

"Shopify's purchase from our first project is a phenomenal curtain raise and mic tap to announce to the many purchasers struggling to find high quality, forward-looking carbon removal offsets like those DroneSeed offers," said Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed. "The robustness of the protocol ensures the seedlings are protected and able to remove carbon from the atmosphere until long after anyone on the team is alive. We're achieving this by following CAR's protocol and putting a legal easement on the property, entrusting the easement to a state-accredited land trust, and as part of project costs creating an endowment with the land-trust to fund enforcement and monitoring of the easement and ecosystem health for a century. All of that work is a huge lift. The effort is worth it for landowners because the offset buyers understand the value of that permanence and the need for reforestation on land affected by severe fires."

Basically, Droneseed is reforesting the land and then giving that land to a special trust that will ensure no development happens on the property so that the trees will grow and thrive for as long as the forest stands.

Shopify has been snatching up these more cutting edge credits for the past few years in an attempt to provide early revenues for startup companies developing cutting edge technologies that may be more expensive -- but more permanent -- than traditional carbon offsets, which are criticized for being ineffective.

"Shopify believes in the potential of reforestation to help reverse climate change, but we are also well aware of the issues around transparency, additionality, and permanence relating to forest carbon credits," said Stacy Kauk, Shopify's Head of Sustainability. "DroneSeed is on a path to resolving these critical issues, which is why we're excited to support their scale-up journey."


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