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Why Silicon Valley is taking a big interest in trees

From the set of investors in Pachama’s $4.1 million seed round, which closed earlier this year, you wouldn’t think it’s a company that specializes in analyzing forests. 

The lead backer is Ryan Graves, a member of Uber’s founding team, and other funders include a who’s who of accomplished entrepreneurs and investors from across Silicon Valley. To list just a few: there’s the founder of the famed Y Combinator accelerator; a co-founder of livestreaming platform Twitch; the head of an autonomous vehicle startup; and an early investor in tech giants such as Twitter, Instagram and Stripe.

So why are all these big names interested in forests? Trees aren’t exactly a new technology. They haven’t been “the next big thing” since they first spread across earth’s landscape 360 million years ago.

The reason for Silicon Valley’s interest is simple: carbon. Trees naturally capture and store carbon from the atmosphere, which helps to mitigate climate change. New technologies have unlocked opportunities for large-scale carbon removal through improved forest management, due to converging advances in satellite imagery, artificial intelligence and data analysis.

Breakthroughs in verification and valuation

Pachama takes full advantage of the technology boom that has occurred over the last several years. The San Francisco-based startup has a dual mission. First, it verifies and monitors carbon credits. The company uses satellite data to ensure that projects store as much carbon as they claim and then continue to store that carbon over time.

In addition to two-dimensional satellite images, Pachama also receives data from LiDAR (light detection and ranging), which is like radar but uses visible light waves instead of radio waves. The LiDAR shows not only where the trees are but also how tall they are. Together, satellite images and LiDAR give Pachama a three-dimensional, color picture of forests, without anyone ever setting foot on the ground. 

Pachama gets much of its imagery from Planet, a company that has dozens of small satellites in orbit collecting high-resolution images of the entire earth every day. “In general, there’s been an explosion in the cost-effectiveness of remote sensing,” said Tara O’Shea, director of forest programs at Planet. “We’re getting more data and of higher quality.”

But remote measurements can’t do everything. To understand how much carbon is stored in a given plot, it’s necessary to understand the age, species and size of the trees on that plot; that information has to be collected on the ground, at least initially. That’s where artificial intelligence comes in.

Pachama’s algorithm uses machine learning to take in a few data points, and then extrapolate how much carbon is stored in similar areas of a given shape and color in the 3-D picture. This type of system is called a neural network because it mimics the way that neurons comprehend information in a human brain. For North America, Pachama’s network is able to predict the amount of carbon stored in a given area of forest with less than 2 percent error.

Even when land managers are able to verify the carbon they store, they can’t always find someone willing to pay for them to keep storing it. That’s why the second part of Pachama’s mission is to create a marketplace for buyers and sellers. Those buyers might be governments looking to comply with public policies such as the Paris Agreement or they might be private companies looking to offset their emissions.

One of Pachama’s investors is Tobias Lutke, chief executive officer of Shopify, whose company has committed to buying $1 million of sequestered carbon every year. That’s a small amount, given that Shopify’s operating expenses are well over $1 billion, but it’s meant to kickstart a still-nascent market. Shopify is one of several companies already buying credits on Pachama’s platform.

“We started with technology companies because we knew that they were going to understand how our system works in terms of online purchasing and in terms of validating the claims of the project with AI and satellite images,” said Diego Saez-Gil, founder of Pachama. 

Another of Pachama’s buyers, Microsoft, recently announced an ambitious commitment to not only become carbon neutral by 2030 but also to cancel out all of its historical emissions by 2050. To get there, it will need to find methods to economically remove large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it has launched a $1 billion carbon innovation fund to help make that happen.

Measuring and mapping a market

Even before making its carbon commitments, Microsoft was proactively putting its technological resources to use through its AI for Earth program, which provides cloud computing power and technical support to startups and research organizations that are applying artificial intelligence to environmental challenges.

For instance, Microsoft offered up its cloud computing platform and technical know-how to help startup SilviaTerra to create a “basemap” of every acre of forest in North America, including an estimate of the species and size of every single tree. SilviaTerra used machine learning to build the map, based on satellite and sensor data from sources such as NASA, trained with field measurements from the U.S. Forest Service.

“There’s no Zillow for trees or there hasn’t been until us,” said Max Nova, a co-founder of SilviaTerra. “A lot of people are shocked that we don’t really know what’s on every acre. It seems a little crazy that we’re in 2020 and that’s still a mystery.”

SilviaTerra’s basemap is more than just enlightening. It lays critical groundwork for landowners to participate in markets for carbon storage and other ecosystem benefits. Forest managers can easily cut down their trees and sell them at the local sawmill, but it’s much harder to find a market for the services provided by keeping forests intact, particularly on small amounts of land.

“People get paid for timber right now,” Nova said. “Very few people are getting paid for things like carbon and wildlife. By measuring those things and giving buyers confidence that they can get what they paid for, we stand to unlock a lot of value in these forests.”

SilviaTerra is developing what it calls a “forest carbon rental market,” where landowners can get paid for delaying the harvest for a given year, rather than the entire life of the forest. This method factors in an expected likelihood of harvest, to account for situations where a landowner would have kept the forest intact even without a payment. SilviaTerra’s approach is part of a strategy of “dynamic conservation,” with tailored and flexible decision-making, which is only possible due to the comprehensive and detailed information that it has collected in its base map. 

“At the end of the day, having the data is nice but it’s not enough,” Nova said. “It only really matters if it’s driving different decisions that people are making on the landscape.”

The carbon credit conundrum

For Microsoft, supporting companies such as SilviaTerra and Pachama is a way to build a pipeline of projects that it can use to meet its long-term targets for becoming carbon negative. Although when I spoke with Bonnie Lei, head of global strategic partnerships at AI for Earth, she also identified a deeper existential imperative.

“If you’re considering the future of how you do business … the basic stability of how you’re able to operate is going to be completely dependent on how good of a steward you are of your current environment,” she said.

In spite of a few big commitments, investments in forest carbon storage have been relatively small, compared to the carbon that needs to be removed to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Plus, forests can’t do all the work on their own. Even planting 1 trillion trees isn’t enough to seriously put the brakes on climate change without also drastically reducing emissions from fossil fuels. However, many emissions can’t be stopped right away, which is why carbon credits are particularly crucial.

Diego Saez-Gil founded Pachama with the expectation that there eventually would be a large and thriving demand for carbon removal, and his roster of big tech investors seems to share that vision. “If the planet continues waking up to the reality of climate change and the urgency of action, we believe that carbon markets will continue to expand,” he said.

This article has been updated to correct the name of Pachama’s founder. It is Diego Saez-Gil, not Diego Sanchez-Gil.


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Conserving and restoring forests won’t be cheap and easy after all

In Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” the character who represents industry succumbs to a feverish greed and chops down every last tree in the forest surrounding Thneedville. In real life these days, the corporate world is all about planting them.

From Microsoft to JetBlue to Royal Dutch Shell, an increasing number of companies are seeking to offset a portion of their greenhouse gas emission by investing in forest protection and reforestation. This new corporate enthusiasm for trees could create the boon advocates of programs such as the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation initiative (REDD+) have longed for. However, if businesses really want to put a dent in Earth-warming emissions by protecting and planting trees, the future of carbon offsetting through forestry will have to look very different from the past.

That’s a very big if, because perhaps the primary reason companies are drawn to trees as a climate solution is how simple and cheap the concept sounds. Trees! How could we not see you were the one? You were right in front of us the whole time! In reality, carbon offsetting through forest conservation and reforestation is far from simple and won’t be cheap — not if real, meaningful emissions reductions are the goal.

To be effective, improvements will have to be made around the verification and monitoring of conservation projects, which have a long history of problems and have produced, at best, mixed results when it comes to reducing emissions. Complicated land-use issues — such as how to restore forests and increase food production by 50 percent by 2050 — also will need to be tackled; and the price of carbon offsets will have to go up. A lot.

The question is: When push comes to shove, will companies be willing to do, and pay, what it takes to do the job right?   

“What we need to do, it’s not going to be as cheap as people think is,” said Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton researcher who studies land use and climate change. “If all you’re paying is $10 per ton [of CO2], you’re probably not doing it right.”

Planting trees is good, but…

The latest science says we need to cut 30 gigatons a year of carbon emissions by 2030 to keep global temperature rise within the realm of the Paris Agreement target of “well below 2 degrees Celsius.” Nature can provide roughly one-third of the reductions needed, through better management of agricultural and grazing lands and the protection and restoration of forests and wetlands, according to The Nature Conservancy.

In other words, two-thirds still need to come by transitioning to a clean energy economy and investing in technical solutions to removing carbon. This is something everyone, even the proponents of carbon offsets, stresses: buying offsets or simply planting trees will not fix the climate crisis and should not be a substitute for cutting emissions.

“We have to do all it. We need to protect forests, and we need to reduce energy emissions,” Searchinger said. “Offsetting should only be something that’s done when there really is no other option.” 

This makes how offsets fit into a company’s sustainability plan more important than the extent to which it uses them. Announcing that your organization is offsetting 30 percent of your business’ CO2 emissions with trees, while meeting 100 percent of its electricity and transportation needs by burning fossil fuels won’t help the planet or the company’s public relations.

This is why efforts such as the One Trillion Trees initiative, created by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, have come under such scrutiny despite everyone agreeing that planting trees is a good thing. More than 300 companies have signed onto the initiative, which Benioff talked up at The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

Put your money where your CO2 is

Fear of the greenwashing label hasn’t quelled corporate interest in forestry offsets.  

Volume on what’s known the voluntary carbon markets — where companies that are not government-mandated to reduce emissions (which is the vast majority) buy carbon credits — hit a seven-year high in 2018, jumping 52.6 percent from just two years earlier, according to a recent report from Ecosystems Marketplace.

This broad-based corporate demand was driven mostly by companies entering the market for the first time, which the report noted was a change from previous years. It also was dominated by interest in nature-based solutions such as reforestation or regenerative agriculture, which soared by 264 percent, and continued to grow in 2019.

Verra, a nonprofit that develops standards for carbon offsetting projects, reported in December that its issuance of voluntary carbon units for forestry and other land-use projects nearly doubled last year compared with 2018.  

“It took me by surprise what happened in the last 12 months, that all of a sudden there was so much demand for carbon credits. All of these corporates were reaching out to us,” said Charlotte Streck, founder of Climate Focus, an Amsterdam-based carbon market advisory that’s advising EasyJet. The British discount airline in November said it would make forest conservation and reforestation in South America and Africa a central part of its plan to be the first airline in the world to offset all of its carbon emissions.

Normally, increased demand pushes prices up, however, on the voluntary market the average price for forestry and land use offsets stayed stuck at around $3 per ton of CO2 in 2018, the Ecosystems Marketplace report shows. This was because of a glut in supply that allowed companies to buy wholesale and negotiate lower prices.  

“Companies were buying up a lot of inventory that’s been verified and is just sitting around,” said Jeremy Manion, forestry carbon markets lead at the Arbor Day Foundation, which develops projects in the U.S. and 26 other countries.

For example, following EasyJet’s announcement that it would spend roughly $32.5 million a year over three years supporting forestry, clean energy and community-based efficiency projects, The Financial Times reported this would work out to less than $4 per ton of CO2.

That’s at the low end of the roughly $4 to $10 range that forestry offsets are selling for on the voluntary market, and nowhere near where experts say prices need to be to supplement incomes for landowners and create real, lasting emissions reductions.

The Arbor Day Foundation partners with the GreenTrees restoration project in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, which has supplied the vast majority of U.S. forestry credits registered on the voluntary market, according to the GreenTrees website. “We’ve been able to be successful to date by piecing together these diversified income streams in addition to the carbon credits,” Manion said, including revenues from sustainably harvested timber, fees for hunting, fishing and camping, and funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for wetland conservation. 

In the United States, a carbon price of $50 a ton would result in roughly 200 million tons of carbon sequestered annually through forest restoration, according to a U.S. Forestry Service report. At $100 per ton, an additional 100 million tons of carbon would be sequestered each year, the report says. In the Global South, a price of as low as $20 per ton dramatically could slow deforestation, especially in Africa, and suck up nearly six gigatons of carbon dioxide, according to another report, published last year in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change.

From surplus to shortfall

It’s unclear what it would mean to, say, the cost of an airline ticket if demand on the voluntary market and pricing on the regulatory compliance markets — currently around $26 per ton on the European Union’s carbon trading system, and $17 on California’s cap-and-trade system — pushes prices on the voluntary market up at some point in the future.

Both EasyJet and JetBlue, which in January became the first major U.S. airline to announce plans to go carbon-neutral on all domestic flights, say they are absorbing the cost. “We are baking the price of carbon into our business model going forward,” Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability and environmental social governance at JetBlue, told GreenBiz.

Perhaps these early adopters are betting that upcoming regulation will level out the playing field with competitors. Under the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), most airlines will be required to buy offsets to account for any growth in CO2 emissions above 2020 levels. CORSIA begins a voluntary pilot phase next year and a second mandatory phase in 2027. 

With the excess supply selling off, prices on the voluntary carbon market will no doubt rise as companies vie for quality projects.

“We’re coming up on a shortage of supply for reforestation carbon credits,” Manion said. “For the GreenTrees project, we’re selling out. We’ll probably be sold out before the next verification in the spring.”

As project developers attempt to meet quickly rising demand, it becomes all the more important that projects, particularly REDD+ and other conservation projects, meet strong verification criteria and are diligently monitored.

To result in a true emissions reduction, the protected area needs to stay protected indefinitely. And if deforestation was planned in one area to make way for, say, a cattle ranch, the result of conserving that land can’t be that the rancher simply shifts over to another piece of land and cuts the trees down there instead.

The most difficult issue to solve with forest conservation projects, though, is determining whether the trees were even going to be cut down in the first place.

“A lot of what gets protected wouldn’t have been cut down anyway,” said Paul Ferraro, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, who studies the environmental and social impacts of public and private programs. “Say there’s a plot of valuable agricultural land that’s going to be cut down, but protecting that area is politically impossible. What happens is they protect this other area that’s away from the roads, away from the cities, with very few resources to exploit it.”

Ferraro says this is called the “high and far” phenomenon.

Tech to the rescue?

Apropos of the world we’re living in, there is at least one tech startup that believes it can solve these problems. 

Pachama uses machine learning on a combination of satellite, drone and lidar images to calculate a project’s potential for sequestering CO2 and keep tabs on it over time. The company sources projects that are approved by existing certification bodies but offers its customers additional high-tech monitoring and management services.

Roughly a year after its launch, Pachema manages 13 projects in the U.S. and Latin America, and it recently raised $4.1 million to create a marketplace where companies can support forest conservation projects.

Founder Diego Saez-Gil said that by looking at the historical data on where deforestation has happened in the past and taking into consideration things like roads, an algorithm can determine the probability that a piece of land will be cleared. “These projections are better than any self-reported projections of what’s going to happen to the forest,” he said. 

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft is a fan of this tech solution and has signed on as one of Pachama’s early customers. The Silicon Valley giant has agreed to purchase offsets at $15 a ton.


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Microsoft’s quest to go ‘carbon negative’ inspires $1B fund

Given the scope of the climate crisis, Microsoft no longer believes it’s enough to be carbon neutral.

That philosophy is reflected in the software giant’s bold new pledge to become “carbon negative” within the next 10 years, with a stretch goal to remove all of the carbon it has emitted “either directly or by electrical consumption” since the company was co-founded by Bill Gates and the late Paul Allen back in 1975. Not only is it unusual for companies to focus on past carbon debt in their removal strategies, it’s a pretty tall order when you consider that Microsoft expects to emit 16 million metric tons of carbon this year alone.

What’s more, the company is putting $1 billion into a new investment fund meant to accelerate carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies.

The new commitments, outlined in a blog post Thursday by Microsoft President Brad Smith, also will see the company extend the internal carbon fee it already charges business divisions to cover not just those contributed by direct operations plus those related to electricity and power consumption (Scope 1 and Scope 2) but also to reflect those generated by the company’s supply and value chains. 

Under that measure, effective July 1, the beginning of the company’s fiscal year, Microsoft will bill individual business units for all Scope 3 emissions (not just those related to travel, which it already includes as part of its calculations). Among the sorts of activities that will be subject to that fee are the impact of materials embodied in buildings, employee commuting, leased assets, the emissions associated with product manufacturing by supply chain partners, the footprint associated with the use of its various products and services and so forth. For perspective, Scope 3 activities will account for 12 million metric tons of Microsoft’s carbon debt this year alone, far more than the impact of the company’s direct operations.

Microsoft’s current carbon fee is $15 per metric ton. Initially, it plans to charge a lower price for Scope 3 emissions, although that amount was not disclosed. Eventually, the company will charge the same fee for all Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, according to the blog.

“While we at Microsoft have worked hard to be ‘carbon neutral’ since 2012, our recent work has led us to conclude that this is an area where we’re far better served by humility than pride,” wrote Smith in the blog. “And we believe this is true not only for ourselves, but for every business and organization on the planet.”

So, what’s in the game plan?

Microsoft defines “carbon negative” to mean that a company is removing more carbon dioxide emissions than it emits each year. In contrast, here’s how it defines the concept of being “carbon neutral”:

Given common usage, companies have typically said they’re “carbon neutral” if they offset their emissions with payments either to avoid a reduction in emissions or remove carbon from the atmosphere. But these are two very different things. For example, one way to avoid a reduction in emissions is to pay someone not to cut down the trees on the land they own. This is a good thing, but in effect it pays someone not to do something that would have a negative impact. It doesn’t lead to planting more trees that would have a positive impact by removing carbon.

To reach its new, more aggressive goal, Microsoft plans:

  • To step up its already aggressive renewable energy procurement activities, so that its contracts for solar, wind and other sources are equal to the carbon-emitting electricity it uses in its data centers, building and campuses by 2025.
  • To electrify its campus vehicle fleet by 2030.
  • To pursue both LEED Platinum and International Living Future Institute Zero Carbon status for the retrofits going on at its Silicon Valley and Puget Sound campuses.

According to the detailed blog about the new plan, it also will invest in a portfolio of “negative emissions” approaches including afforestation, reforestation and soil carbon capture; and emerging technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, as well as direct air capture systems. Microsoft’s key criteria for deciding which of these to use: scalability; affordability; commercial availability; and verifiability. For that reason, it will focus on nature-based solutions first and pivot to emerging technologies over time.

“Given the current state of technology and pricing, we will initially focus on nature-based solutions, with the goal of shifting to technology-based solutions between now and 2050, when they become more viable,” Smith wrote.  

Of keen interest to its suppliers, Microsoft will begin to adopt a new procurement strategy by July 2021 that motivates them to reduce Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. It has offered resources to assist with the work of getting there but did not provide details in the blog published Thursday.

“We believe that Microsoft’s most important contribution to carbon reduction will come not from our own work alone but by helping our customers around the world reduce their carbon footprints through our learnings and with the power of data science, artificial intelligence and digital technology,” Smith wrote. 

To that end, Microsoft’s new commitments were accompanied by two product launches. The first is the Microsoft Sustainability Calculator, a business intelligence dashboard that will provide customers of its Azure cloud services with a measurement of the carbon impact of their computing workloads. Microsoft is also giving customers the option to opt for a green energy source for cloud services, through a service called Vattenhall. Both products are available.  

The business of carbon removal solutions

Microsoft’s plan to invest $1 billion in carbon removal technologies over the next four years underscores the burgeoning opportunity it sees for solutions in this area — both for itself and other companies.

The new Climate Innovation Fund will make decisions about where to invest using the following questions as a compass:

  1. Can the strategy drive “meaningful decarbonization, climate resilience or other sustainability impact”?
  2. Can the technology accelerate current or potential solutions?
  3. Can it help Microsoft address both its “unpaid climate debt” as well as future emissions?
  4. Does it consider climate equity in both established and emerging economies?

Microsoft will continue to fund the AI for Earth program, which supports more than 450 grantees in more than 70 countries.

About those oil and gas industry customers

In recent months, Microsoft’s ongoing relationships with companies in the oil and gas sector, such as Chevron and Schlumberger, have been criticized by both employees and activists who suggest the software company should divest those customers to accelerate the transition to a clean economy. Google and Amazon have been subject to similar criticism.

“While there is a lot to celebrate in Microsoft’s announcement, a gaping hole remains unaddressed: Microsoft’s expanding efforts to help fossil fuel companies drill more oil and gas with machine learning and other AI technologies,” said Elizabeth Jardim, senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace. “Teaming up with Exxon, BP, Chevron and others to extract more oil and gas is a major disconnect and makes the climate crisis worse.”

In the blog, Smith doubles down on Microsoft’s position that it needs to keep working with the fossil fuels sector in order to help them evolve. “Continued improvement in standards of living around the world will require more energy, not less,” he wrote. “It’s imperative that we enable energy companies to transition, including to renewable energy and to the development and use of negative emissions technologies like carbon capture and storage, and direct air capture.”

That said, you can expect to see the software company become increasingly transparent about its progress on carbon removal and more vocal on matters of carbon-related public policy including the need to support more applied research on breakthrough carbon technologies, and the use of carbon markets and pricing that help customers and business make more informed decisions. It has talked about making this commitment before, and lobbied before on behalf of things such as more progressive utility policies, so eyes will be on the company to see how it follows through. 

Elizabeth Sturcken, managing director of EDF+Business, described Microsoft’s new commitment as an audacious goal. The NGO was encouraged by Microsoft’s pledge to use its political might on behalf of climate-related causes. 

“Microsoft is at the helm of what could be a new movement toward negative emissions,” Sturcken said in a statement. “It’s a big step beyond what most companies have committed to. But to really shift the need on climate change, we need 1,000 other Microsofts to follow suit and turn rhetoric into action.”


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Black farmers embrace and implement solutions for climate resiliency

Chief Zogli looked weary as he scratched a notch in his doorpost to record the weather. “Still no rain,” he says with resignation. The chickens pecked lazily in the dust and the goats foraged for the last of the dropped grains beneath the emptying corn crib. In this rural community outside of Odumase-Krobo, Ghana, the farmers depend on rainfall as their only source of agricultural water. Zogli explains that the rainy season has been arriving later each year and ending sooner — and the thirsty crops struggle to mature.

From the African continent to the Americas and across the Caribbean, communities of color are on the front lines of and disproportionately harmed by climate change. Record heat waves have caused injury and death among Latinx farmworkers and devastating hurricanes have become regular annual visitors in the Caribbean islands and coastal areas of the United States.

Meanwhile, several Alaskan Native communities struggle to hunt and fish sub-Saharan Africa, where Ghana is, is among the regions projected to experience the harshest impacts of climate change. “If you’re not affected by climate change today, that itself is a privilege,” climate activist Andrea Manning says. 

But the same communities on the frontlines of climate impact are also on the frontlines of climate solutions. A new generation of black farmers is using heritage farming practices to undo some damage brought on by decades of intense tillage by early European settlers. Their practices drove around 50 percent of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. Agriculture continues to have a profound impact on the climate, contributing 23 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Now black farmers are finding ways to capture that carbon from the air and trap it in the soil. They are employing strategies included in Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown,” a guide to the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming.

One practice, silvopasture, is an indigenous system that integrates nut and fruit trees, forage and grasses to feed grazing livestock. Another, regenerative agriculture, a methodology first described by agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, involves minimal soil disturbance, the use of cover crops and crop rotation. Both systems harness plants to capture greenhouse gases. “No other mechanism known to humankind is as effective in addressing global warming as the capturing of carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis,” Hawken says.

Here are examples of how farmers are putting these practices to work.

Leonard Diggs, Pie Ranch Farm, Pescadero, California

After working in an auto parts store during high school, Leonard Diggs swore, “I will never have another job working inside.” True to his word, Diggs went on to manage sustainable farms in northern California for over 30 years.

Diggs is developing a 418-acre incubator farm at Pie Ranch, where beginning farmers will establish their own regenerative enterprises. In collaboration with the Amah Mutsun tribal band and nearby farmers, he is creating a landscape-level ecosystem plan that integrates forest, riparian corridor, native grasslands, perennial and annual crops. The management practices that emit carbon, such as some annual crops, will be balanced out with perennial areas that sequester carbon, achieving carbon neutrality overall.

“We need to realize that working landscapes provide not just products but also ecosystem services like carbon sinks, water recharge and evolutionary potential,” Diggs explains. He envisions a food system where farmers derive 30 to 40 percent of their income from the value of ecosystem services and do not have to “mine” the soil to make a living. He is working with researchers to establish baseline data for the amount of carbon in the soil, and the composition of bacterial and fungal communities. The goal is for the farm to capture more carbon than it releases over time.

Unlike many incubator farms that emphasize annual crops and allow farmers to stay for just a few years, Diggs is working with a longer horizon. “We need to plant orchards and perennials, get them established over 10 years, and hand new farmers a working landscape. Instead of making them leave as soon as their businesses get established, we will move the incubator to a new area, and the farmers can stay.

“We need agriculture that does not lose our carbon, and does not deplete our people.”

Keisha Cameron, High Hog Farm, Grayson, Georgia

Not everyone in the black farming community is as excited about fiber as Keisha Cameron. Given the prominent role of the cotton industry in the enslavement of African Americans, many farmers eschew cultivation of textiles. “We are largely absent from the industry on every scale,” she explains. “Yet these agrarian artways and lifeways are part of our heritage.”

At High Hog Farm, Cameron and her family raise heritage breeds of sheep, goats, rabbits, horses, chickens and worms in an integrated silvopasture system and sells fiber and meat. One of her favorite varieties is American Chinchillas, rabbits which consume a wider diversity of forage than goats and fertilize the pasture with their manure.

The family is also working to establish tree guilds, a system where fruit trees are surrounded by a variety of fiber crops such as indigo, cotton and flax. Its goal is a “closed loop” where all the fertility the farm needs is created in place. It packs a lot of enterprises into a small space. “We have 5 acres,” she says playfully. “Just enough to be dangerous.”

In his book “The Carbon Farming Solution,” Eric Toensmeier writes that silvopasture traps 42 tons of carbon per acre every year. This is because pasture stores carbon in the above and below ground biomass of grasses, shrubs and trees. Also, animals raised on pasture have healthier digestive systems than those raised in confinement, and emit lower amounts of methane.

In addition to healing the climate, silvopasture is a joyful practice. “I get to play with sheep and bunnies. What could be better?” Cameron poses.

Germaine Jenkins, Fresh Future Farm, North Charleston, South Carolina

When Germaine Jenkins first moved to Charleston, she relied on SNAP and food pantries to feed her children. “I did not like that we couldn’t choose what we wanted to eat, and there were few healthy options. I was sick of standing in line and decided to grow my own stuff.”

Jenkins learned how to cultivate her own food through a master gardening course, a certificate program at Growing Power and online videos. She promptly started growing food in her yard and teaching her food-insecure clients to do the same through her work at the Lowcountry Food Bank. In 2014, Jenkins won an innovation competition and earned seed money to create a community farm.

Today, Fresh Future Farm grows on 0.8 acres in the Chicora neighborhood and runs a full-service grocery store right on site. “We are living under food apartheid,” explains Jenkins. “So all of the food is distributed right here in the neighborhood on a sliding scale pay system.”

Jenkins relies on what she calls “ancestral muscle memory” to guide her regenerative farming practices. Fresh Future Farm integrates perennial crops such as banana, oregano, satsuma, and loquat together with annuals such as collards and peanuts. The farm produces copious amounts of compost on site using waste products such as crab shell, and cardboard and wood chips is applied in a thick layer of mulch. “We repurpose everything — old Christmas trees as trellises and branches as breathable cloche for frost-sensitive crops,” Jenkins explains. They even have grapes growing up the fence of the chicken yard so that the “chickens fertilize their own shade.”

Jenkins’ farming methods have been so successful at increasing the organic matter in the soil that it no longer needs irrigation. It is also less vulnerable to flooding. “Two winters ago, we had 4 feet of snow. Our soil absorbed all of it,” Jenkins says.

Toensmeier writes that for every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, we sequester 8.5 tons per acre of atmospheric carbon. If all of us were to farm like Jenkins, Diggs and Cameron, we could put 322 billion tons of carbon back in the soil where it belongs. That’s half of the carbon we need to capture to stabilize the climate. 

As Larisa Jacobson, co-director of Soul Fire Farm, explains, “Our duty as earthkeepers is to call the exiled carbon back into the land and to bring the soil life home.”


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Statistic of the decade: 8.4 million soccer fields of land deforested in the Amazon

This year, I was on the judging panel for the Royal Statistical Society’s International Statistic of the Decade.

Much like Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” competition, the international statistic is meant to capture the zeitgeist of this decade. The judging panel accepted nominations from the statistical community and the public at large for a statistic that shines a light on the decade’s most pressing issues.

On Dec. 23, we announced the winner: the 8.4 million soccer fields of land deforested in the Amazon over the past decade. That’s 24,000 square miles, or about 10.3 million American football fields.

This statistic, while giving only a snapshot of the issue, provides insight into the dramatic change to this landscape over the last 10 years. Since 2010, mile upon mile of rainforest has been replaced with a wide range of commercial developments, including cattle ranching, logging and the palm oil industry.

This calculation by the committee is based on deforestation monitoring results from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, as well as FIFA’s regulations (PDF) on soccer pitch dimensions.

Calculating the cost

There are a number of reasons why this deforestation matters — financial, environmental and social.

First of all, 20 million to 30 million people live in the Amazon rainforest and depend on it for survival. It’s also the home to thousands of species of plants and animals, many at risk of extinction.

Second, one-fifth of the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon Basin, supplying water to the world by releasing water vapor into the atmosphere that can travel thousands of miles. But unprecedented droughts have plagued Brazil this decade, attributed to the deforestation of the Amazon.

During the droughts, in Sao Paulo state, some farmers say they lost over one-third of their crops due to the water shortage. The government promised the coffee industry almost $300 million to help with their losses.

Third, the Amazon rainforest is responsible for storing over 180 billion tons of carbon alone. When trees are cleared or burned, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Studies show that the social cost of carbon emissions is about $417 per ton.

Finally, as a November 2018 study shows, the Amazon could generate over $8 billion each year if just left alone, from sustainable industries including nut farming and rubber, as well as the environmental effects.

Financial gain?

Some might argue that there has been a financial gain from deforestation and that it really isn’t a bad thing. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, went so far as to say that saving the Amazon is an impediment to economic growth and that “where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it.”

In an effort to be just as thoughtful in that sense, let’s take a look. Assume each acre of rainforest converted into farmland is worth about $1,000, which is about what U.S. farmers have paid to buy productive farmland in Brazil. Then, over the past decade, that farmland amounts to about $1 billion.

The deforested land mainly contributes to cattle raising for slaughter and sale. There are a little over 200 million cattle in Brazil. Assuming the two cows per acre (PDF), the extra land means a gain of about $20 billion for Brazil.

Chump change compared to the economic loss from deforestation. The farmers, commercial interest groups and others looking for cheap land all have a clear vested interest in deforestation going ahead, but any possible short-term gain is clearly outweighed by long-term loss.


Right now, every minute, over three football fields of Amazon rainforest are being lost.

What if someone wanted to replant the lost rainforest? Many charity organizations are raising money to do just that.

At the cost of over $2,000 per acre — and that is the cheapest I could find — it isn’t cheap, totaling over $30 billion to replace what the Amazon lost this decade.

Still, the studies that I’ve seen and my calculations suggest that trillions have been lost due to deforestation over the past decade alone.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


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6 sustainability trends that GreenBiz readers engaged with most in 2019

2019: the last year that the United States will take part in the Paris Agreement. The year with the hottest June on record since record-keeping began in 1880. The year a significant part of the Amazon rainforest went up in flames.

But there’s another side to the story.

The year that a climate activist won TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year honor. The year that CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies released a statement redefining the purpose of a corporation and calling for leadership in issues such as climate change. The year that automakers and the Trump administration got into a fight about clean air standards. 

It’s been a year of increased attention to climate change — in no small part because climate change’s impacts are more visible than ever before. This year that our planet inched ever-closer to warming to 2 degrees Celsius was also a year of mass mobilization against climate change. 

We’ve covered all of these climate stories and more on GreenBiz. As we reviewed the year in our biggest articles, we could see clear patterns emerging in what our readers were drawn to. Check out the biggest trends that our audience engaged with the most in 2019.

1. Single-use plastic, not so fantastic

The striking visual of the sea turtle with the straw in its nose may have exploded into public consciousness in late 2018, but it stayed with you all into 2019. 

Some of our biggest stories of the year focused on plastics. We identified packaging alternatives to plastics, questioned where bio-based plastics fit into a circular economy, explored consumer awareness of single-use plastic issues and investigated the truth about ocean plastics.

Of special note is the story you clicked on the most this past year: the launch of a new initiative that promises reusable packaging, an alternative to the traditional non-reusable packaging surrounding the food, beverage, hygiene and other consumer products you use every day. 

From Loop’s launch brings reusable packaging to the world’s biggest brands, by GreenBiz’s executive editor Joel Makower: 

Loop … has amassed a blue-chip roster of companies, all of which are piloting a new system of high-quality packaging that can be returned and refilled again and again. In essence, it changes the ownership model of packaging from consumer to producer.

2. Human health, meet planetary health

The idea of “planetary health” is relatively new — it’s a part of public health that combines a focus on the health of human populations and the natural ecosystems surrounding them.

Increasingly, as climate change affects air quality, food nutrition, infectious disease spread and more, planetary health is human health. Our readers were interested in learning more.

Our articles ranged from Why human health must be at the center of climate action to The drive to embed “planetary health” impacts within corporate sustainability strategy.

Specifically, at the beginning of the year, a new report, EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, came out that gave dietary recommendations based on both nutrition and sustainable growing criteria.

The article that our readership strongly engaged with was a deep dive into those recommendations: nutrition expert Erica Hauver’s The inconvenient truths behind the “Planetary Health” diet, which asserts, “The scale of our health crisis is on par with the projected climate impacts of the future including premature deaths, large scale human suffering and economic impact.”

3. Carbon removal proceedings

In order to keep Earth under 2 degrees Celsius warming while emissions are rising at their current rate, climate scientists have shown that we’ll need to draw down some of the pollutant chemicals in the air.

There are many ways to remove them, both natural and technological. The technological ways are relatively new and probably exciting to our readers, as you all were very interested in our stories on carbon removal technologies.

There’s “carbontech,” the new term for products created from carbon removed from the air. “Climate-positive,” or the strategies that companies are looking at to draw down more pollutants than they release. And “regeneration,” the agricultural and ecological practices of enhancing soil health to increase sequestration of carbon dioxide.

Readers turned to our stories that explained and covered these new trends. The head of sustainability for natural and organic operations at General Mills, Shauna Sadowski, wrote about how regeneratively managing cattle can help sequester carbon in the soil.

We covered how IKEA is planning to spend millions on green energy, reforestation and forest protection projects in order to curb the climate impacts of its furniture business. 

Another big story was a new report out from economic researcher the Rhodium Group that analyzed the mix of carbon removal approaches, from industrial technologies such as direct air capture technologies to soil health. The senior policy advisor for carbon removal think tank Carbon180, Rory Jacobson, analyzed it for us, and you all tuned in.

4. People to watch

At the heart of climate change solutions and corporate sustainability are the people getting it done. We write about these individuals extensively, and our readers engaged with those articles.

Want to meet the 25 badass women shaking up the corporate climate movement? We’ve got you.

Feeling like getting to know the twentysomethings who are sustainability leaders in their companies, nonprofits and communities? We have you there, too, with our fourth annual cohort of GreenBiz 30 Under 30, who “work in the worlds of technology and tires, finance and forestry, retail and recovery operations … data centers and diversity, conservation and conservative politics.”

How about the individuals flouting the status quo to create products, services and business models that are blazing a trail to a cleaner future? We honored the VERGE Vanguard earlier this year, the disruptors harnessing innovation to mitigate climate change and facilitate the clean economy transition.  

5. Action for the built environment

Our everyday lives are shaped by the built environment — homes, office buildings, roads, parks and more — around us. As climate change increases the frequency and severity of weather events that impact the built environment, making sure that our infrastructure and ecosystems are resilient is critical. 

In addition, the right design and development of buildings can help mitigate climate change and improve public health through efficient energy use, carbon-sequestering materials and other co-benefits.

When we ran the numbers, readers found much of our coverage of climate-resilient buildings and building materials especially interesting. We wrote about significant solutions to the problems that the built environment faces as the climate continues to change. 

We wrote about everything from how environmentally friendly timber is to progressive real estate regulations to a shift towards sustainable architecture as a profession. And of course, the story is not over — we’re looking ahead to the biggest trends in 2020.

6. Strategy patterns

Corporate strategy is already hard. Corporate sustainability strategy is even harder. We always have plenty of how-tos, case studies and wrap ups to help.

Many sustainability professionals read us for updates and insights in the field, so it makes sense that some of our most-read stories were about sustainability strategy.

Patagonia was a point of reference for two of our most popular stories. One was startup founder Harry Doull’s deep dive into the shortcomings of sustainable companies in this economy: Why we’re not creating the Patagonias of tomorrow. Then there was our article about why Patagonia and other companies look to the idea of good governance for sustainability strategy: Is governance the unexplored secret behind Patagonia’s business success?