Regenerating Our Natural Ecosystems on the Path to Zero
Photo by Shane Stagner on Unsplash
Scientists say we will need to eliminate 50 billion tons of annual emissions to attain net zero, and while this sounds like a monumental undertaking, the good news is that we already have vital resources which can support us in achieving a large chunk of this reduction – our oceans and lands. Together, the Earth’s natural carbon sinks remove approximately 40% of total human emissions. If we protect these critical natural resources, human derived interventions will only need to account for the remaining 60% of global emissions. The more we protect nature so it can do its job, our job in preventing a climate catastrophe by removing and preventing future emissions becomes that much easier. (In systems science, this is known as a positive feedback loop.)
Oceans absorb approximately 17% of our cumulative emissions and pose a significant opportunity for natural carbon abatement. By 2030, the ocean economy is estimated to be worth over $3 trillion and ocean plants and vegetation produce over 50% of the air we breathe. Kelp (seaweed) farming holds exciting potential, as it grows quickly with minimal maintenance, and when it dies it sinks to the ocean floor taking with it embodied carbon, potentially sequestering 20x more than the mass equivalent of land plants. Kelp also supports the regenerative growth of sensitive marine ecosystems, and is a versatile industrial material for sustainable products, including biodegradable plastics, organic polymers, biofuels, cosmetic products, and fiber for clothing.
Climate change is already wreaking havoc on food security, and seaweed can also help feed the planet as it’s high in fiber, vitamins, nutrients, and protein. In this way, it could support global food supply without putting pressure on existing crop-growing regions. An especially exciting application for certain variants of kelp is its use in cattle feed which can reduce methane emission – a greenhouse gas with 86 times more warming potential than CO2 – by as much as 80%.
Cascadia Seaweed, a growing Canadian-based start-up, is partnering with Indigenous populations in British Columbia to cultivate seaweed to sell as an additive to agrifeed, and developing a line of consumer products made of seaweed branded as Kove. Another company, Kelp Blue, is attempting to “rewild the oceans'' by growing and managing large-scale kelp forests to lock away vast amounts of CO2 forever. And Planblue is building a global seafloor database using underwater satellites to protect oceans and foster a sustainable blue economy.
Meanwhile, land sources absorb about 24% of our emissions despite only making up 29% of the Earth, and preserving tropical rain forests must be a top priority. This is where Brazil comes into play in its ability to be the steward of the Amazon, the “lungs of the Earth.” Unfortunately, since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2018, deforestation of the Amazon has rapidly accelerated. Encouragingly, other nations are stepping up as models of sustainable land management. The World Economic Forum has named Panama, Bhutan and Suriname as the three countries which are already net negative in their total emissions, mainly due to extensive forest protection. Costa Rica, also endowed with plentiful rain forest, has made substantial progress in regenerating its lost tree cover back above 50%, thereby putting it on a clear path to net zero by 2050.
Turning closer to home, forests in the Western U.S. have been ravaged by wildfires in recent years. Old growth forests absorb up to 70% more carbon than logged and replanted trees, making them one of nature’s most effective forms of carbon sequestration. For example, a 150-year-old beech tree will absorb nine tons of CO2, the equivalent of 35,000 miles driven by car. Experts say it is essential to protect these trees now so they can absorb carbon in the future, and several companies like Dryad, OroraTech, Pano AI are working to protect forests through advanced technology involving wildfire detection, mitigation, and response. Similarly, several companies like DroneSeed and Living Carbon are focused on reforestation and ecosystem restoration.
NCX has recently raised a $50mn Series B round for their solution in helping companies buy carbon credits from American forest owners through carbon offsets and its business model has attracted high profile investors like Marc Benioff (founder and Co-CEO of Salesforce) and Microsoft's Climate Innovation Fund. European-based The Future Forest Company has a goal of planting 50 million trees by 2025 and then utilizing biochar to make money in the developing carbon offset market. Pachama has recently raised $79mn in Series A and B funding to leverage data and AI to protect ecosystems, restore forests, and improve carbon markets. For environmentally conscious consumers, Treecard is offering a new credit card with “no hidden fees, just trees” which assures users that a tree is planted with every purchase. Loam has a microbial soil technology which sequesters carbon in crops for farmers. Peatland Technologies in the U.S. and Revere in the UK are one of the few early stage start-ups working on peatland protection and restoration, ranked as one the top land sink solutions.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of start-ups are working on deploying both simple and elegant solutions to support our natural carbon sinks yet venture capital dollars have so far failed to catalyze behind this trend as they have for other emerging technologies like direct air capture and fusion. Climate Tech VC , by example, has recently highlighted a massive disconnect in the deployment of climate capital over the last two years, with a large oversupply of capital to electric micromobility and a large undersupply to reforestation and ecosystem restoration. Despite the tremendous potential of ecosystem restoration to draw down 2.9 GtCO2e (gigaton carbon equivalent) per year of emissions, the sector has received a paltry $0.2bn in venture investment. By comparison, the electric micromobility sector has received $2.9bn in capital during this period (second most just behind EVs), despite its very modest potential for carbon emissions reduction at .02 GtCO2e. If natural carbon sinks are so effective in staving off global warming, one would think investors should be embracing this sector in pursuit of long-term ROI. Sensing this budding opportunity, ReGen Ventures is a new $50mn venture fund in Australia focused on backing ventures in this underfunded sector.
In light of the latest IPCC report, it is clear our backs are against the wall if we are going to keep the 1.5°C goal within technical reach and attain full carbon neutrality by 2050. Solving for zero now will require us to align current resources today with the best long-term emission reduction options. The climate crisis is the very definition of a wicked problem with a potential $178 trillion price tag over the coming decades, and while estimates do vary, we need to be spending at least $1.5 trillion per year over the next thirty years to reach the goal of net zero. At present, we are falling well short of that mark. Protecting and regenerating our natural ecosystems is one of the best investments we can make now to safeguard the future of humanity and stop climate change. Let’s hope our capital markets step up soon to embrace this opportunity.
Rob Kellogg is the founder of the Sathi Fund for Social Innovators, is on faculty at the Watson Institute where he teaches in their semester accelerator, and is involved with CrowdSolve, a software platform supporting early-stage climate innovators. Since 2015, Rob has been active in the social entrepreneurship space, having served as a mentor or advisor to 100+ founders and their ventures, many working on addressing the climate crisis.
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