Back in January, one of the world's biggest tech companies paid half a million dollars to a cattle farm in Australia.
Microsoft wasn't buying beef. The Redmond, Wash.-based company was paying for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the farm's operations to offset its own energy use.
For farmers deals like the one from Microsoft represent a potential windfall of new money. For the planet, improving ag practices to store more carbon in the soil could be an opportunity to prevent billions of tons of greenhouse gases from escaping into the atmosphere and slow the pace of global warming.
Still in its earliest days, this new market faces a number of challenges. And leading the list is the ability to monitor and measure what exactly has been stored so companies that want to offset their greenhouse gas emissions can pay appropriately for the work these farmers are doing to capture CO2.
That's where a company like Perennial comes in. Founded by Jack Roswell, Mark Schurman, and Oleksiy Zhuk (two satellite tech developers and a roboticist) Perennial wants to provide the tools to monitor how much carbon dioxide farmers are capturing in an effort to get them paid.
Or, as the company puts it, to "unlock agricultural soils as the world's largest carbon sink."
Now Perennial, which used to be known as Cloud Agronomics, has a fresh $18 million in funding to help it achieve its goals. The new money came from Temasek, and the investment arm of the news organization Bloomberg, along with SineWave Ventures and Microsoft's Climate Innovation Fund.
The ag industry represents about 23% of greenhouse gas emissions thanks to the direct cultivation of land and clearing and deforestation, according to the United Nations report on the causes of climate change.
According to Perennial, farmland could sequester and store billions of tons of carbon dioxide -- if the right systems were put in place. And those systems depend on accurate data to monitor and measure exactly what's being stored.
Perennial's pitch to these farmers and the corporate buyers that want to balance out their industrial emissions is that it can use proprietary software and a network of satellites to accurate track that information. Food suppliers and farmers can work with Perennial to measure and reduce their emission, while project developers can partner with the company to verify offsets that get sold to businesses.
For a data and information company like Bloomberg, getting involved in tracking the offset market just makes sense.
"At Bloomberg, we are committed to fostering innovative technology solutions that will help companies deliver against net zero targets," said Ben Macdonald, Global Head of Enterprise Product at Bloomberg, in a statement. "Our investment in Perennial is a natural fit for this philosophy.”
The company is already working with regulators around the world to make its offsets compliant with local standards.
“The measurement, reporting and verification of carbon stored in soil remains costly and complicated, and current methods do not scale to millions of acres. What is needed is an accurate, cost-effective, and highly scalable way to measure and report carbon stored in soil everywhere, all the time. That is the key to unlocking the enormous market potential for trusted soil-based carbon offsets. That is the Perennial platform,” said co-founder and CEO Jack Roswell, in a statement.
Perennial isn't the only company working on the measurement and verification problem. With the potential to store nearly 1.5 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually, ag-focused, nature-based solutions hold the potential to significantly reduce global warming.
That's why companies like EarthOptics, Yardstick, and Regrow are also developing tech solutions to monitor and manage these offsets.
Scientists estimate that farm soils could store over 60 billion tons of additional carbon, EarthOptics CEO Lars Dyrud said last year when his company announced its own multi-million dollar investment round.
And if these solutions are coupled with biodiversity preservation initiatives, the benefits for planetary health can be compounded.
“By estimating carbon sequestration in soils using remote sensing in place of physical sampling, we can take advantage of lessons learned during the same transition in forests over the last few decades, where remote sensing has become the international gold standard that replaced on-the-ground measurements” said Perennial's chief researcher, David Kellner said. “Our technology reduces or eliminates the need for physical soil sampling. Reducing the sampling burden will drive down the cost of generating carbon offsets in agricultural land.”