Can Nature Find a Way?

Creating Certainty In Natural Climate Solutions

With COP27’s “breakthrough” moment focusing collective attention on financial compensation and support, I speak with an innovative startup looking to rebuild trust and create some much needed certainty to accelerate carbon removal through natural technology solutions.

Just because it’s green and natural doesn’t mean it isn’t a technology. Nature is a technology, just one we don’t really know very well. Our challenge is to better understand it, help regeneration, and importantly, learn how to be better partners.

Harry Grocott CEO & Co-founder of Treeconomy.

Let us not put money in the way of progress

While COP27’s “Loss and Damages” legacy is certainly a step in the right direction for the much needed support of those most affected by climate change, it comes with a risk of distracting other critical efforts.

The Loss and Damage fund acknowledges that many of the nations who suffer the worst climate change outcomes are poorer nations that have had lesser impacts on the climate.

The Loss and Damage fund acknowledges that many of the nations who suffer the worst climate change outcomes are poorer nations that have had lesser impacts on the climate.

The fund manages contributions from wealthier nations (those with more responsibility for climate change) to support adaptation, resilience and rebuilding of the nations who suffer significant long and short term losses and damages attributable to the effects of climate change.

In the last hours of COP27, wealthier nations committed to providing $230 million to this fund, a sum that some have described as paltry. One such commentator questioned how a fund that was equivalent to the approximate value of 230 $1 million houses (a price point that one in 12 homes in London exceed) could feasibly address the loss and damage of 33 million people who lost their homes in Pakistan this year, alone.

One in 12 homes in London are worth over £1 millionSavills.

The sad truth is that this fund, while it must optimistically be framed as a mere starting point, is vastly insufficient today, let alone tomorrow.

Yet with that, this deal is at risk of focusing political will on financing a rapidly increasing bill which, without increased dedication to emission reduction and carbon removal will only gather pace faster and faster.

So what is being done to accelerate carbon dioxide reduction and removal while politicians pontificate over how much money to throw and an uncapped future liability?

Doubling down on Reductions and Removals

We are living in a pivotal moment in human history, where the impact of our relatively short time on this planet has created a path that is drastically and irreversibly altering our collective future.

In the last couple of years, we have witnessed several shifts in sentiment towards the role that natural systems can play in atmospheric carbon capture and removal. The potential of natural systems, such as forests, to combat climate change have given a lot of hope, suffered reputational setbacks and gained new technological competition.

This new competition manifests itself mostly in highly engineered sequestration systems such as Direct Air Capture (DAC) and mineralisation.

Part of the reason these systems are attracting significant support is that these engineering-based carbon dioxide removal techniques (CDR) are easier to understand, easier to monitor and their future can be more reliably predicted.

These characteristics make their impact more quantifiable and therefore more investible.

On top of that, humanity has thrived on seemingly spontaneous and previously unimaginable technological leaps — which, in many ways, has led us to our present day climate calamity. With this backdrop, there is a human tendency to place hope in rapid advancements of new technologies to solve our latest crisis.

These engineered climate solutions therefore have stimulated a lot of hope and investment. However, there are few things we need to be mindful of, in particular:

  • It will take decades to prove the true effectiveness of these newer technologies at a planetary scale,
  • One technology will not solve the entire problem in isolation, meaning we need to invest in solution diversification, and,
  • Most require continued rapid advancements of non-fossil fuel energy systems to reach their projected impact.

While there may still be hope in technological advancement, we simply cannot afford to sit back and wait for this particular knight in shining armour to save the day.

One technology group is proven at a planetary scale, and has been crafting environments for millennia.

While not a product of human ingenuity, Nature is definitely a technology — albeit one we don’t fully understand — so how can we better partner with Nature?

Partnering with Nature

Despite the challenges we’ve thrown at it, Nature continues to stand by, ready to do what it does best — to help life adapt and thrive.

But let’s not be fooled, Nature doesn’t give two-hoots about humans per-se. Life on this planet will persist, one way or another, the biggest question is how much of a role Humanity plays in that future.

Anyone who has stood at the sea’s edge on a stormy day or witnessed buildings crumble as the ground beneath them shook will have felt the formidable power that nature can wield in an instant. Yet, the full force of Nature is often more subtle, exerting equal, if not greater, power and influence almost imperceptibly.

An intricate balance of growth, death, decay and restoration is happening right now, beneath your feet, above your head. This marvellous complex system has forged the ecosystem that enabled humans to prosper, and will continue to forge this planet’s future.

The question is, how can we partner with the immense unforgiving force for our mutual best outcome?

Looking for inspiration, I spoke with Harry Grocott CEO & Co-founder of Treeconomy.

Treeconomy

As a student of Geography, Harry was intimately aware of climate change, and increasingly aware of the potential of both the natural and human-engineered technologies.

In his earlier financial career Harry grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress on climate issues and assumed it came down to money, or the lack of it.

The more he worked in the finance sector, especially with high-net worth (HNW) estates he realised “Money isn’t the issue. The issue is how to put that money to work, that’s where things were falling down”.

Determined to understand more about climate change and how the finance system could be better directed to its aid, Harry took up a climate Masters at Exeter University.

It was here, Harry met Treeconomy co-founder, Robert Godfrey, and the lightbulb moment occurred.

Even though natural climate solutions were booming in popularity, particularly with a focus on tree planting programmes, the data required to quantify the impact was missing.

Indeed, so little was known about forest ecosystems that it was almost impossible to determine how much mass they consisted of, let alone how much additional carbon dioxide they sequestered due to incremental reforestation projects.

Harry likened this to building wind turbines without any understanding of how much power they generate.

“You simply couldn’t get funding to construct one turbine, let alone hundreds, without being able to quantify their output — and therefore, their return on investment.”

Treeconomy was founded to provide hard data about the growth of natural systems, the amount of carbon they capture and store and therefore make them a much more attractive proposition for carbon removal investment.

“There is much we don’t know about nature, such as why sequoia trees grow the way they do, or the full role that mycorrhizal fungi play in healthy ecosystem development,” Harry commented, “In essence, though, Nature is technology. The challenge before us was how to make Nature an investible technology.

Technology Tracking Trees, Above and Beyond

Using artificial intelligence (AI), remote sensing with satellites, LiDAR enabled drone reconnaissance, Treeconomoy creates detailed assessments of growth within forest ecosystems; new and old.

These detailed and periodic assessments identify and document the growth of trees as well as other woody plants found in green ecosystems, such as hedges and scrub. Harry points out that this is crucial for a true account of the carbon held within a particular habitat.

“In recent years we’ve seen a shift of focus away from plant-a-tree types of individual tree planting projects to a focus on how much carbon is stored holistically,” commented Harry. “Counting trees from above only takes you so far in this endeavour. To build a comprehensive and dependable data depiction of the total carbon stored in a forest we must go deeper.”

Treeconomy achieves this using convolutional neural networks to interpret data from remote sensing systems along with highly granular ‘point clouds’ from LiDAR equipped drones.

This approach goes way beyond tree counting and enables Treeconomy to provide transparency across afforestation, reforestation and even rewilding projects.

By way of example, Harry mentioned that 22% of Scotland’s landmass should be rainforest, but it has been eroded over the years to make way for farming and deer. As a result, an invasive Rhododendron species has taken hold of large swathes of land, adding complexity and risk to projects that aim to restore Scotland’s unique ecosystem.

In this instance, Treeconomy’s systems can be used to identify and track these invasive species, enabling a more surgical approach to their confinement and removal. This makes the whole process measurable, more cost-effective and easier to fund.

With a holistic view of natural ecosystem growth, a more detailed and dependable data set of accumulated carbon can be derived. Once derived, continual assessment provides transparency as well as predictability.

This level of carbon accounting makes afforestation, reforestation and rewilding projects investible.

“If a wind turbine falls over, that’s an expensive and complex issue to resolve. However, when a tree falls over it either regrows or kick-starts other growth systems.”

Harry Grocott

The perceived durability of natural solutions has been one of the hindrances over the years. Reversal events, such as fires or droughts have made it difficult to predict or fully rely on natural carbon sinks.

In addition, artificial constructs such as the typical 30 to 100 year life spans that carbon schemes place on forest projects further limit long term certainty.

But it needn’t be that way — the Amazon rainforest has been growing and adapting for millions of years. As such, Treeconomy has another nature inspired solution to this.

“Our approach aims to deliver confidence and transparency into natural climate solutions, but we understand we need to go beyond that in order to provide even more durable solutions.”

Harry described how the modern human-engineered carbon dioxide removal solutions, such direct air capture, have placed a somewhat arbitrary 1000 year time frame on carbon storage. As such, any nature-based solution needed to look way beyond the 30 year mark to be seen as a contendable investment option.

To achieve this Harry and the team have looked towards one of nature’s own super-sequesters, the slightly mysterious Sequoia tree.

Working with a project in Wales, Treeconomy is able to guarantee long-term carbon removal of natural systemsremoving yet another barrier to mass adoption of nature-based solutions.

Sequoia trees are a fantastic source of carbon removal as they grow considerably taller and live significantly longer than other tree species. Because of their sheer size and volume, they capture more carbon per acre, while their constant growth rate (documented to live 3,000+ years) enables them to store carbon over a long period of time.

An investor’s perspective

In a previous article, I learned how the lack of transparency and certainty was holding back investment into carbon removal projects. Now, speaking with Treeconomy I hear a similar story — money is waiting to be poured into these projects, if only we can reduce investor uncertainty.

If Treeconomy can deliver that, then there’s even more reason for hope. To find out more, I reached out to Samia Qader, Senior Principal at Climate.VC — one of Treeconomy’s investors.

I asked Samia what excites her about Treeconomy, and what their future could look like.

Treeconomy brings together well implemented project design to deliver carbon removal projects along with exciting and accurate monitoring technology. Combining both the supply of projects along with trustworthy and transparent monitoring they are one of just a few companies that can actually solve the supply problem with high quality carbon credits.

Samia Qader, Senior Principal, Climate.VC

Treeconomy is already booking in tens of megatonnes of carbon removal through a mix of UK-based and international partners.

They expected to reach the one gigatonne removal mark within the next 10 years — a critical criteria for all Climate VC investments.

My Takeaway

Speaking with Harry, I am reminded of an article I was commissioned to write on a modern technology practice known as Observability, or “O11Y” for short (“o”-11-characters-”y”).

In essence, O11Y (pronounced Olly) is the ability to know what is going on within complex software systems by measuring their outputs.

It seems that ‘observability’ of natural systems could be the key to unlocking global financial mechanisms, enabling us to leverage more of Nature’s potential in our fight against carbon emission — and this is precisely what Treeconomy is doing.

Solving our climate calamity is going to take a concerted yet diverse effort. No single nation, no single approach or technology is going to turn the tide.

Even while developing advanced novel technologies with the hope to bring something new to the fight, we must evolve our thinking and adapt our institutions to leverage the very technology that has enabled us to call this space rock home.

In the last few years, nature based carbon dioxide removal projects have been through the wrangler. Following the conversation with Harry I feel more confident that these complex, autonomous systems can find new support and in partnership, be used to much greater effect in our struggle.

This is yet another example that despite the headlines, amongst us there are great people doing great things, creating reasons for hope and action. Good luck to Harry and the team, I really hope Treeconomy is a big part of our climate solution.

For another example of a startup helping make rapid positive changes to our planet, check out the article on Kita. Discover how they’re working to ensure more reforestation and carbon removal through the provision on carbon removal insurance.

Originally published at https://wellthatsinteresting.tech on December 5, 2022.

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A techie at heart, who loves finding innovative tech and helping people understand what’s possible and what might come. https://wellthatsinteresting.tech

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Scott

A techie at heart, who loves finding innovative tech and helping people understand what’s possible and what might come. https://wellthatsinteresting.tech