Some targets set at COP15 have been criticized as idealistic, but three startups are “starting the impossible” with one seed, whale, and rainforest at a time.
Late last year, 150 financial institutions responsible for $24 trillion worth of assets called on world leaders to adopt an ambitious framework to combat the world's ongoing, massive extinction crisis.
The call to action came during the United Nations 15th conference on biodiversity (COP15) where participants noted that billions of dollars are needed across sectors to deliver on the targets set at what delegates call “the most significant conference of the United Nations on biodiversity in history.”
As Reuters reports, while finance options for biodiversity are increasing — as even investors are calling for action — the pace of investment is still slow, significantly lagging behind other ventures in the climate tech boom.
It is becoming more and more obvious that ‘simply decarbonizing’ is not enough to restore planetary health.
As a U.N. report warned ahead of the conference, humans are decimating wildlife due to the climate crisis, land-use change, and overexploitation of nature and its resources. Aside from devastating mass extinction, this loss has adverse effects on human health and food security. It also pushes the natural assets both local and global communities rely on off balance.
As Bourhan Yassin, CEO of the nonprofit nature tech startup Rainforest Connection puts it, “If you have the world's best natural technology at absorbing carbon in forests, trees, and soil, biodiversity is what makes that technology that much better at doing what it needs to do.”
Nature’s carbon-absorbing ability is just one reason nature tech, a way of investing in biodiversity loss mitigation has seen a surge of investment in recent years, growing by $2 billion in 2022. Nature tech is seeing an annual growth rate of 58%, and while that sounds large, it’s not exactly a headline in the 210% annual growth rate climate tech is seeing as a whole.
Accordingly, a theme at COP15 was the need for investment in “nature-positive” and “Mother Earth-centric” actions. Due to commitments at COP15, billions of dollars will funnel into these actions in the coming years, all with the goal of saving the one million plant and animal species in danger of extinction.
But, when there’s so much confusion, even among delegates, around what words like “nature-positive” even mean, that’s where startups come in to turn dollars and lingo into tangible, scalable, and sustainable solutions.
“I think the big difference with the biodiversity COP this time around is that it wasn’t just biologists and politicians at the table. That there were so many financial institutions that were invested in this,” said Emily Charry Tissier, CEO and co-founder of Whale Seeker, a Montreal-based startup using ethical AI for marine mammal monitoring.
“They [the financial institutions] said this matters to us. We are going to put money behind it,” Tissier told FootPrint Coalition. “It’s really the only thing that works,” she added, noting the need to translate money into a metric for conservation.
Whale Seeker, created in 2018, is a for-profit startup leveraging artificial intelligence with aerial, satellite, and infrared imagery to detect whales and other marine mammals.
Tissier says this imagery is critical across industries. This includes government-level conservation efforts, like their partnership with the Canadian government for sustainable marine management in the Arctic; scientific research like their collaborative project to quantify whale natural capital; and businesses like their clients in construction who want to avoid interference with marine habitats.
According to the startup, Whale Seeker is the first AI company focused on wildlife in the world to be B Corp certified, a certification that the startup says may be able to set an ethical framework for AI. The startup is among a new age of ventures venturing into the forests and the oceans.
Image credit: Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Left: Aerial image featuring a lone narwhal among ice floes, outlined in green. The whale was detected by Möbius, Whale Seeker’s AI-powered image annotation system.
Right: A large pod of narwhals detected and annotated by Möbius, Whale Seeker’s AI-powered image annotation system. Möbius automatically generates a group size estimate, which is normally done with manual counts. The polygonal annotations on this image show the whales oriented in one direction, which suggests that they are traveling.
In fact, according to Net Zero Insights, a net-zero market intelligence platform, of the 2,105 companies with sustainable development goals concerning life on land and life underwater operational this year, only 142 are in scaling stages, with the majority in periods of growth, early-stage, or ideation. On the platform, Whale Seeker is considered early-stage.
Another company enabling AI for wildlife monitoring is the non-profit Rainforest Connection, an early-stage international startup based out of San Francisco. Using their tech on land instead of in the sea, their bioacoustic “AudioMoth” and “Guardian” devices are placed in tree-top canopies around the globe to stream the sounds of gibbon monkeys howling in Indonesia, hummingbirds in the Mashpi Reserve in Ecuador, or alarming audio indicators of poaching equipment like chainsaws. The tech detects threats to forest ecosystems and provides critical information for biodiversity monitoring.
On the plant-diversity side is Hawai’i-based startup, Terraformation. Founded in 2019, the growth-stage company enables foresters to restore valuable ecosystems to accelerate natural carbon capture. Throughout 2022, the company worked with 18 projects in 12 countries from Tanzania to India to Ukraine as pilot projects to their Seed to Carbon Forest Accelerator.
With the launch of what they refer to as “the world’s first” carbon-funded forest accelerator devoted to biodiversity, Terrafomation will work with a soon-to-be-announced class of new projects in creating and sustaining thriving, biodiverse forests.
As the United Nations puts it in the COP15 draft deal, the money mobilized by the end of the decade should enhance “Mother-Earth centric actions,” which means “ecocentric and rights-based” approaches “towards harmonic and complementary relationships between peoples and nature,” promoting “the continuity of all living beings and their communities.”
To paraphrase The Guardian biodiversity writer, Phoebe Weston in her recent Down to Earth newsletter, optimistic jargon like this sounds like “bad poetry,” the vagueness of which makes it susceptible to greenwashing.
However, these startups are bringing structure to the ambitions of “peace and harmony.” While the “nature-positive” targets passed at COP15 may seem idealistically vast, or “a utopian idea that we cannot obtain,” as one delegate told Weston, these three startups just so happen to address a multitude of the 23 targets, representing a larger trend of tangible nature-based solutions in the startup and tech world.
One noticeable trend throughout the deal is the emphasis it places on conservation efforts rooted in local communities and Indigenous rights. As one target reads, efforts should respect and protect the sustainable use of natural resources by these groups.
According to Emily Grave, ethnobotanist and Terraformation’s lead on forestry partnerships, when establishing reforestation programs, “We have to ensure that we are solving for livelihoods in the area first. A lot of deforestation in the world happens because people might not know that if they cut down the forest it takes a lot of time to grow back.”
They need the forest for food, wood, or charcoal for their family now, she said. So when attempting to solve deforestation in an area, initiatives need to provide an alternative source of income.
“Educating and helping people to see that forests can provide long-term benefits instills a sense of ownership. These are stewards of the land,” Grave said. “They’ve been stewarding the land for thousands of generations before we came along so they know the best way to do that. They just need to have an incentive to not chop it down.”
Grave is leading the current forest accelerator program at Terraformation. While biodiversity has always been a core value for the startup, this program enshrines it in the application.
According to the startup, within the next decade, the world will need thousands of new reforestation teams to capture carbon at scale and limit the impacts of climate change. It’s not an understatement to say tree extinction can cause “ecological, cultural, and socio-economic catastrophe” as scientists put it in a 2022 paper on the state of the world’s woodlands.
A third of the planet's 60,000 tree species are at risk of extinction, the paper said, a “crisis” that small organizations are on the ground working to mitigate. However, after in-depth interviews with dozens of forestry teams, Terraformation discovered that the biggest bottleneck is the lack of funding small organizations have, with 95% of projects underfunded.
“The largest tree planting organizations are well funded, but they’re only planting a handful of species,” Grave said. “So we needed a way to funnel more business capital into these early-stage organizations who are doing amazing work but have no funding to scale their operations.”
“Despite the evidence of benefits that biodiverse forests can provide, less than 35% of current restoration projects worldwide are committed to creating biodiverse forests,” Grave said, citing a 2019 Yale360 analysis. A number of factors play into the lack of diversity. Some are passive like the lack of access to seeds for native tree species. Others are actively destructive, like reforestation for the sole purpose of timber and other profitable greenwashing schemes.
However, through Terraformation's Seed to Carbon Forest Accelerator, “native species restoration projects can focus on biodiversity and that can be a sustainable business model for projects and the local communities,” Grave said. To date, the startup has helped to create more than 400 sustainable jobs in roles like nursery management, seed collection, and planting, working to solve the seed shortage.
“I don’t know of any other organization that is so laser-focused on seeds and increasing global seed supply,” Grave said. “Less diverse forests are less resilient to climate effects, and wildlife that also depends on them can’t survive as well, so ensuring that we’re empowering teams by overcoming that seed barrier – planting forests that will benefit the environment and its inhabitants, both human and non-human alike – that’s what the real drive is that keeps me going.”
Rainforest Connection (RFCx) also embodies a community-first approach to habitat protection.
Using bioacoustics, their artificial intelligence-powered tech is a noninvasive way to monitor species. The soundscapes they generate provide ample information for conservation, scientific research, and threat detection in vulnerable ecosystems, so both authorities and local communities can protect their land from poachers and study the species that call it home.
“We've been working with the Tembé since 2014,” Yassin told FootPrint Coalition. “They're about 2,900 of them on a map, and they have a massive piece of land.” However, according to Yassin, they have lost control of 50% of this land due to illegal logging, drug settling, and drug plantations.
This tribe has little access and resources that are available at their disposal, he said. Providing bioacoustic technology to this group in Brazil and another in Sumatra, Indonesia through their collaboration with the organization KKI Warsi, is one of the most fulfilling aspects for Yassin.
When discussing common greenwashing projects in the Amazon, Yassin said “The Tembé have seen a lot of that. They’ve seen a lot of people come to their land, pose for photos, promise the world, and then never show up again.” “They’ve mentioned: ‘You're the only organization that's ever stuck around and actually give us real support.’”
According to Yassin, RFCx never abandons a project, and even if they don’t have funding at the time, “we always try to come back and say, okay, we don't have funding for it right now, but we're going to try to see if we can get some resources and funding to get it done.”
Photo courtesy of Rainforest Connection
Right: Bourhan Yassin, CEO of Rainforest Connection, installing an RFCx Guardian Device in the tree-top canopy at a project site in Chile, Nahuelbuta National Park.
Left: Deforestation at a project site
Their science team identifies areas that will have the most impact, whether they be biodiversity hotspots like Terraformation is working in or places with likely large concentrations of illegal logging that will require intervention.
The startup has partnerships with big names like Google, Hitachi, and Huawei. Currently working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Italy, RCFx is collaborating with Huawei for the use of AI in cloud analytics, useful for biodiversity monitoring and rehabilitation projects in Italy’s agroecosystems.
For threat detection, forest rangers receive real-time push notifications on their phones when the Guardian devices detect poaching sounds. The AI is trained with over 200,000 examples from around the world. Whether it be vehicles, chainsaws, or gunshots, using machine learning and convolutional neural networks, the device pinpoints the threat.
According to Huawei, in 2021, the audio detection led to more than 30 field checks, one of which resulted in the destruction of poaching equipment by the Italian police and WWF.
The method for species identification undergoes a similar process, in which the AI detects signatures, providing “a snapshot of the soundscape of Earth at any given point in time,” says Yassin.
Soundscape recording courtesy of Rainforest Connection
Currently, RCFx is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Puerto Rico. After rehabilitating the endangered Puerto Rican parrot for 10 years, the government is finally ready to release it back into the wild, Yassin said. “Using acoustics, we can predict areas where we think are best habitats for releasing these parrots.”
Several targets within the COP15 draft deal highlight the need for technological development for conservation particularly in developing and emerging countries. RCFx has worked in 32 countries to date. Collecting 82 million minutes of audio data, the most have come from the jungles of South and Central America and Southeast Asia.
Adjacently, Terraformation partners across sub-Saharan Africa with projects from the Kenyan Savannah to Ghanaian mangrove habitats.
Additionally, the majority of the applications for their current accelerator are from Columbia. Grave points out the need for working in these areas and in islands specifically. “Islands are some of the most biodiverse hotspots we have in the world. They are going to be impacted by climate change first and they’re also not the ones contributing” she said.
Still, both of the U.N.’s recent conferences give her hope. “We have COP27 behind us and COP15 wrapping up. Many countries are really pushing climate change legislation that prioritizes their nation’s agenda to meet the mandates of the Paris Agreement, and hopefully, this means more restoration will commence all over the world in addition to lowering global emissions.”
The Terraformation forest accelerator is financed through nature-based carbon credits, purchased by investors looking for opportunities in carbon capture. According to Grave, this funding mechanism gets money to teams as soon as possible.
Credits for conservation financing were a big point of discussion at COP15, specifically biodiversity credits. While Terraformation provides verified carbon credits that have worked to successfully finance their projects in the past, the system has also been a source of greenwashing elsewhere.
Ideally, each unit of carbon credits represents a one-tonne reduction in carbon emissions through efforts like using renewable energy or in Terraformation’s case, planting trees. However, when it comes to nature conservation and the U.N.’s bright idea of using biocredits and ecosystem-payment services for funding, there’s no single metric for measuring how much carbon an ocean or individual whale, for example, naturally captures.
WhaleSeeker is working to change that.
“Ocean tech has been overlooked really big time, and the tide is turning,” Tissier told FootPrint Coalition. “I think it's because of the momentum that we have for climate emergencies. People are saying, let's not wait till the science is perfect. Let's just start acting now.”
According to Tissier, Whale Seeker and their partners are developing a methodology that eventually will be available to everyone to replicate or scale. Using the startup's ethical AI, the team will analyze aerial images of whales, narwhals, and other marine mammals, collected by airplanes and drones.
Environmental data from Baffinland Iron Mines, one of the biggest mines in the Arctic, and oceanographic data from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada will also be used. On their board is Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the biggest whale and dolphin NGO on the planet, and Blue Green World, a network working to create a nature-based economy, founded by the assistant director to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Ralph Chami.
In 2019 Chami co-published a paper detailing a strategy to protect whales, which naturally sequester carbon, to limit greenhouse gas density and global warming. This type of incentivized protection could be groundbreaking, as the majority of whale species are endangered due to commercial whaling and climate change. Since its publication, Tissier says that due to the development of the carbon market, the value of whales has gone up.
According to Tisser, all of the data processed in the project will be audible and timestamped, making it verifiable which is really important for high-quality carbon credits. “It’s sort of the Wild West,” she said, describing the carbon credit world.
With the methodology, in two years' time, Whale Seeker will have a new metric for measuring carbon sequestration, pioneering a new market to offset the carbon-capturing contribution of whales and the open ocean. The terrestrial system of calculating carbon credits works for soil, trees, and coral, Tisser says. “But that doesn’t work for moving species. We really need to think outside the box.”
“Our current economic paradigm values dead whales that are sold for their meat. In contrast, living whales are valued at zero dollars although their ecological services, including carbon sequestration, are incredibly valuable to our own survival and well-being as well as to the health of our ocean,” Chami said via Whale Seeker.
“We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes and values the services of a living and thriving nature, both flora and fauna. This new nature-positive economy will lead to sustainable and shared prosperity for all.”
According to Tissier, the project will be meaningful for both ocean conservation and business, incentivizing more whale-friendly behaviors.
The risks associated with projects like this are why Tissier says Whale Seeker decided to be a for-profit company as opposed to a nonprofit, which the startup is often assumed to be.
“As a for-profit company, people see us as wanting to just save the whales. They think we don't have a valid business model, that we're not serious, and that we're just whale huggers,” she said. She emphasized the need for sustainable businesses to tackle issues with governments and nonprofits so that each can make a difference where the other can’t. “Small startups, we can pivot. We can take risks.”
After trying their new ideas, Tissier says, they can rope in more institutional organizations, such as those in their Whale Carbon Plus Project, to ensure everyone from policymakers to scientists has a voice at the table.
“I don’t know what the solution is going to look like,” she said, noting all the different factors that will go into the blue carbon metric, from the ecosystem’s value as a whole to how time, whale feeding, calving, and other activities impact their sequestration.
But what she does know, is that business has a significant role to play in creating the solution.
Image Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Right: Aerial image featuring a close crop of a beluga pod. Each beluga was detected by Möbius, Whale Seeker’s AI-powered image detection system. Labels show how confident Möbius was for each detection: 0.98 shows that the model was 98% confident that it found a whale.
Left: One of thousands of aerial images featuring complex ice patterns taken during a seal survey. This image contains one seal that would typically be found and annotated by a human analyst.
For the project, Whale Seeker chose to start with narwhals because they’re mostly in Canadian jurisdiction, “so we don’t have to worry about global migration as a first step,” she said. Instead, they can create an index for the specific region. Still, if the U.N. is to tackle biocredits on an international scale, global migration may be a factor they have to navigate. “As we know more and as we understand more, we can then add into that complexity,” Tissier said.
Despite the complex intricacies, Tissier thinks biocredits are possible on a global scale.
“We’ve seen how carbon credits have worked and not worked. I think that’s a plus for us developing ocean strategies because we know not to fall into this space. When we’re thinking of all of the ways that a system can be abused or misused, [we can] try and build those safeguards as we’re developing from square one, as opposed to it being an afterthought. Of course, we can’t predict everything that’s going to happen, but I think we’re further ahead because we’re not starting from zero.”
A duo of biologists, Tissier co-founded Whale Seeker in 2018 with her husband, Bertrand Charry, while on maternity leave. “I felt like I simultaneously grew a spine – a steel spine – and I had this veil lifted, where I thought, I don’t care what people think about me anymore, I need to take action.” The thought that her work may help ensure her daughter can see whales in the wild years from now is what keeps her going.
For Yassin, this motivation comes from working with a passionate team who could “be making five times the money” working somewhere else, but chose to work at Rainforest Connection, and “do something that makes the world a better place.”
And for Grave, it’s the value of Terrafomation’s mission to “start the impossible.” “We know this isn’t easy and we know we can’t do it alone,” she said. “But this is one of the Terraformation values: just to get started and get one foot in the door. One foot in front of the other, and before you know it, you’ve accomplished the impossible. I tell my kids this just about every day."
Terrafomation is looking for forestry teams on the ground that incorporate biodiversity into their core business models, Emily Grave says. "So if anyone reading this also wants to join us in that quest, please give me a ring."
(This article has been updated to clarify that Terraformaton's 18 projects in 12 countries are pilot projects that came before the Seed to Carbon Forest Accelerator.)