🤔 We need more hardtech solutions to fight climate change… Software will not be enough to decarbonize the globe. But even you may realize that to commercialize a hardware solution with decarbonization potential – it’s expensive, costly and time consuming.
Expertise makes it affordable and genuinely possible to bring frontier climate technologies to market.
This is why we’ve gotten an extension for Scale for Climatetech to the end of the day for you and your startup or your portfolio companies!
THE TL;DR 💨
- How to value trees in the amount of carbon they drawdown over their lifespan
- Just drawing down carbon is not enough – conserving the biodiversity of the region is a requirement to deliver positive impact
- How a bamboo based building panel can reduce heating and cooling costs for buildings and reduce the carbon footprint of the building
- Policy is enabling companies like BamCore to grow due to the heavy “thermal efficiency” requirements in building codes in states like CA
- A book review exploring frontier climate solutions being built today that can help our climate
- Active discussions on the controversy around frontier climate solutions raning from carbon removal to solar geo-engenieering
🌳 CARBON CAPTURE
Conservation’s Crucial Role as a Carbon Sink
By Stephanie Zulman • is a business operations and supply chain professional passionate about cultivating a career in carbon capture and exploring the evolving markets opportunities and innovative solutions stemming from it.
Welcome back, my newly minted tree connoisseurs. In my quest to answer a commonly asked question of why we can’t just plant trees to capture all the harmful carbon dioxide clogging up the atmosphere, the first issue in this series focused on explaining what the carbon cycle is, why it’s essential, and all of the glorious ways humanity has overloaded Earth’s natural systems to the point that we might end up fully breaking the scale. This article builds upon this knowledge by exploring conservation’s importance to protecting trees’ role as a carbon sink.
Many of us have heard the philosophical teaser: If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
I am here to inform you that this question is meaningless. The more pressing concern should be the fact that that tree, loud or not, has now had its years of quiet, dedicated work storing carbon eviscerated. At that point, I feel like that tree deserves the emotional release of a good, full-bellied roar. It’s as if, after 142 years of building the Duomo in Florence, Italy, some random schmuck decided to Rambo the whole place to ashes.
Circling back to the plight of the commonly slain tree and the displaced carbon, birds, plants, insects, and animals that once made it their home, the damage may seem negligible when we focus on just one tree. However, one must take stock of forests’ large-scale impact as carbon sinks and guardians to biodiversity. Then, add into our analysis the current trends in global conservation efforts, and we can start to get a clearer picture of how much active tree storage we have left to work with and why it should be defended.
How Much Carbon Trees Capture
According to a 2021 study in Nature Climate Change, Earth’s forests absorb 16 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. When you subtract the impact of gross emissions from deforestation and degradation, their positive impact is halved to a net 7.6 billion tons.
One way to appreciate trees’ value is by understanding how much carbon a single tree can capture. This depends on its age, climate, forest, and soil type. For the most part, it takes a decade of maturation for tree species to begin storing carbon and become active participants in the carbon cycle. At that point, the amount of carbon dioxide a tree can absorb and store as carbon will grow each year with the tree. If an oak sapling was planted in 2011, it would only begin to have the capacity to store carbon this year and just 0.10 pounds worth at that. Only at 23 years old does it even reach a full 1 pound per year absorption rate. So, by 2050, that one oak tree will have stored a total of 17.95 pounds of carbon within itself, assuming it hasn’t been burned or chopped down for timber. Based on Statista’s data of carbon dioxide emissions per person in the US, the average American would have emitted approximately 547.78 metric tons in that time frame.
If we zoom out, a protected forest of lively, 50-year-old oaks can sequester 30,000 pounds of carbon per acre. So, while trees do store a lot of carbon, unfortunately, instant gratification was simply not included in their design. It takes time. Conserving a forest simply has a much greater positive impact than planting a forest.
The Importance of Tree Conservation
There’s a reason why the Amazon rainforest has been nicknamed “the lungs of the earth,” and it’s based more on science than romanticism. Like many other parts of the natural world, the Amazon was designed to absorb CO2 and act as a mighty yet humble carbon sink. It truly can’t be overstated how important it is for us to protect these lungs.
Conservation is the simplest variable to understand. Maintaining the carbon sinks we still have is crucial to species/biodiversity preservation and creating barriers to deforestation. There are many practical drivers for banning deforestation. Tree root systems help moderate flooding and prevent erosion because, unlike concrete, they strengthen the soil around them, allowing them to better absorb and redistribute high volumes of water, and withstand wind.
Biodiversity preservation is key to sustaining natural ecosystems that are critical to saving all life. We regularly take advantage of it to make critical scientific breakthroughs that directly affect modern medicine. Of the 3,000 plants the US National Cancer Institute has classified as having potential anti-cancer properties, 70% are endemic to the Amazon Rainforest. From aspirin to malaria cures, the medicinal benefits we receive from biodiversity can’t be stressed enough. Forests also serve as irreplaceable attractions that sustain many country’s tourism industries. Here in the US, we tangibly benefit from conservation efforts through the 423 bountiful national park sites that encompass 84 million acres of land.
However, these existing natural reserves can’t sustain biodiversity by themselves. Even with conservation efforts, those protected trees are just as vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, and overall, protected areas only represent a tiny portion of existing forest biodiversity.
How to Measure Positive Impact
Some ways of comparing specific countries’ positive impacts on conservation are more effective than others. According to the World Resources Institute, the realms currently protecting the highest percentage of their forests are quite often the smaller countries of the world and/or are the countries that have much smaller areas of forest left. These top five percentage-wise countries are, in order, Cambodia, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, and Slovakia.
On the other hand, the countries with the greatest quantities of protected forest area are those who naturally possess the largest amounts of forest. This metric is clearly the most important of the two when considering the total amounts of carbon dioxide being filtered out of the air by trees. The top five countries for the largest quantities of forest area protected are Brazil, Russia, Canada, the US, and Venezuela. Anyone relatively familiar with global news won’t need much explanation as to why this data is somewhat (wildly) ironic. However, we’ll get into this more in the fourth piece of this series on deforestation.
How Do We Protect Our Trees?
The easiest way to conserve trees is through legal protection, making government intervention key to protecting forests. This effort is monitored through the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), which was created by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Around one-fifth of the worlds’ forest area has some sort of legal protection carved into it with invisible lines. However, this doesn’t fully ensure that these areas are actively being protected.
On the ground, conservation takes many other interesting and fancy names. Improved Forest Management (IFM) involves delaying/avoiding harvesting timber and, overall, looking to improve the efficiency and productivity of forests. Nonprofits, such as Nature Conservancy, buy up vulnerable land so that loggers, commercial real estate, and other ambitious land clearing businesses cannot.
The preservation agenda has begun to morph into a profitable opportunity for businesses looking to offset their emissions. Offset credits (each of which equals one metric ton of carbon) have started to become a desirable currency for companies looking to show investors that they can achieve the in-vogue label of “carbon neutrality” and contribute to voluntary reduction goals. With bulging ESG funds and a need to negate without compromising on the emissions that they’ve labeled as unavoidable, investing in conservation is a relatively simple and effective way to earn offset credits and become a participant in our growing cap-and-trade systems.
This evolving market will continue to grow with legislation, active business participation, and the growing shift in consumer’s attention to the terror of a world on fire. Just as exciting are the new value chains growing from this fusion of our market values with climate activism/survivalism. The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental group, is already an instrumental key for many corporate giants to invest in carbon sinks. It enrolls landowners and utilizes its own preserved forests to create carbon offset projects for companies like JP Morgan and Disney to purchase credits from.
Small governments can find profit in these initiatives as well. BlackRock Inc. has directly paid the city of Albany, New York to preserve the forests around its reservoirs so that they wouldn’t be cut down. Walt Disney Co. has engaged in similar tree transactions to protect a forest surrounding a reservoir in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In general, Disney provides an excellent example of the complexities and issues that can arise from aggressive corporate conservation investments.
However, it should be noted that the carbon offset market is more like a sparkly Band-Aid than Neosporin. Paying a company to hold off on chopping down lumber doesn’t mean that the forest isn’t going to get cut down… just that they’re getting money to hold off for a bit. Unfortunately, mechanisms like cap and trade allow large companies to put off making meaningful, operational changes. While any significant investment that reduces our net emissions should be encouraged, it doesn’t, for example, discourage BP from drilling for oil like a rabid, juiced-up mole.
In case you missed the news, which would be entirely fair given the current state of global affairs, 2021 was the start of the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The aim of this glamorous banner is to unite the world to protect and resuscitate Earth’s plethora of suffering ecosystems. Always timely, it’s expected to last until the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals deadline. Whether this measure will be wholly or marginally successful will depend on the (in)actions of the powerhouse countries who have the greatest ability to control the outcome– given their GDP, global influence, and willingness to conserve and restore their abundant natural resources.
Conservation, as we’ve seen, is vastly important. It takes much more time to break, remake, and then wait for the gains to hopefully reappear. Governments and businesses alike must adjust their definition of value so that the long-term benefits of our environmental impact weigh more heavily than the short-term cost of investment and a quick turnaround to profitability. Aggressively and heavily investing in protection, remediation, and mitigation initiatives will require the emotional maturity to accept that, much like a tree’s slow timeline to grow its carbon storage capacity, many of their benefits will not be ready to show off in next year’s investor’s meeting.
In the next part of this series of carbon capture via trees, we’ll look at the second key element to maintaining our trees’ role as a carbon sink: reforestation.
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🚀 STARTUPS & TECH
Sequestering Carbon in the Built Environment
By Daniel Kriozere • Daniel is a Business Analyst at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and aspiring investor & advisor to clean-tech startups.
Carbon sequestration is a critical component to mitigate climate change. Where technology innovations to capture carbon fall short, traditional techniques can help.
BamCore is harnessing the power of timber bamboo and industrialized construction techniques to decarbonize the built environment. Each project can become a perpetual carbon farm by storing carbon from every harvest into durable harvested wood products. By extension, the faster or more frequently bamboo is harvested, the more carbon can be farmed from the atmosphere, and the more carbon can be stored in durable harvested wood products. Hal Hinkle (CEO) and Zack Zimmerman (CRO) discussed how BamCore innovates materials in the built environment.
What problem is BamCore trying to solve? How are you solving the problem?
There are three chronic issues with the built environment – carbon, costs, and labor. Carbon might be the biggest of them all, as the built environment is responsible for 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
BamCore is helping solve the carbon problem by introducing a green and sustainable substrate that we use in our panels, specifically timber, bamboo, and other fast-growing structural woods, which helps reduce the embodied carbon of a building by 40%. BamCore’s framing solution, called the Prime Wall, also gives more space to put insulation in walls, which reduces the energy needed to heat or cool a building and makes for a quieter building.
From the cost and labor perspective, BamCore products are prefabricated, resulting in time/labor savings because it takes less time and fewer skilled laborers to build/install. The prefabricated materials also come in a flat pack, which means no waste on construction sites. As a result, there is an overall cost saving between 5-10% when you look at the entire budget of other buildings.
How are you thinking about and quantifying impact metrics?
BamCore’s last life cycle analysis pointed to 223 metric tons of carbon dioxide saved when substituting a BamCore framing system for a traditional framing system, equating to a 42% reduction. That’s overall, so that’s including operating savings over the life of the building calculated at 70 years and the embodied carbon incorporate during initial construction. Also, a team of researchers at BamCore wrote a white paper showing that the bamboo species that BamCore uses sequesters between 500% to 600% more carbon dioxide than typical materials. The other way we are looking at impact is that BamCore can reduce the energy required to heat a 1,100 square foot unit by between 25-50%.
One thing to note is that normally people say that you want to reduce the embodied carbon due to manufacturing. So you want buildings to have less “embodied” carbon unless the carbon results from a biogenic sequestration process – a natural process that takes the carbon out of the air. And that’s what bamboo does faster than any other plant on land on the planet.
How is BamCore compared to other technologies in the market today?
We combine changes in material and methodologies. There’s an interaction between the two because we are choosing new materials that are stronger and biogenic; we are also innovating on the methodology side.
BamCore differentiates itself by using bamboo’s fast-growing biogenic structural fiber, compared to other materials that are more focused on eliminating emissions from manufacturing. We compete against methodologies that try to save time or labor, e.g., prefab stick frame walls or modular buildings. Instead, we use panels fabricated as a kit-of-parts because it is simpler, faster, and cheaper. The other advantage that BamCore brings is enabling higher heating and cooling efficiencies – essentially downsizing HVAC systems or reducing the number of heat pumps needed.
Success for the market is bringing new structural, biogenic fibers into the built world. Today, BamCore is the first mover doing this, but others are also looking at the opportunity.
What is driving the market?
One of the biggest challenges the industry faces is that there is not enough housing. In California alone, we are well over 1 million units short and, according to New York, we are 6.5 million short nationwide.
Another value proposition is that affordable multi-family developers are forced by policy to build increasingly thermally efficient and higher quality. And to add to that, many professional organizations are recognizing the need for net-zero. Every material input must be better performing and have a reduced footprint. The unfortunate thing is that developers need to accomplish this with the same budget.
These two factors are accelerating innovation and alternative materials into the market.
Buildings generate nearly 40% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. On top of that, roughly two-thirds of the building area that exists today will still exist in 2050. Meanwhile, we can’t necessarily reverse the impact of embodied carbon on the planet; technologies that improve current construction methods can both mitigate the impact and make the construction greener. The catch is that only 0.5-1% of the buildings today will be renovated –new technologies can primarily be used for new construction.
📃 POLICY & FINANCE
Making Ecommerce More Sustainable
By Elisabeth Strayer • Elisabeth is a writer and researcher who earned a PhD from Cornell University.
Published earlier this year, Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, synthesizes some of the most cutting-edge (and, often, controversial) climate solutions currently in development. Many of these solutions demonstrate what Kolbert terms “the recursive logic of the Anthropocene,” which understands our current attempts to fix the environment as correctives to our previous attempts to fix the environment. Simply put, Kolbert describes her project as “a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.”
Following on the heels of Kolbert’s previous environmental nonfiction writing (including The Sixth Extinction, which won the Pulitzer Prize), Under a White Sky chronicles her journey across the United States (from Hawaii to Louisiana) and the globe (from Australia to Iceland). Along the way, she introduces us to a lively assortment of biologists, engineers, and physicists working to reverse sundry anthropogenic environmental disasters. The book is organized into three sections, which present increasingly unconventional climate solutions.
The book’s first section, “Down the River,” includes two aquatic stories: one, of attempts to mitigate the fish population by electrifying the Chicago River canal, and the other, of drainage systems meant to avail the sinking cities of southern Louisiana. But it is not until Kolbert travels “Into the Wild” — as the middle section is titled — that things truly take a turn for the uncanny. She introduces us to the rarest fish in the world: the pupfish of Devils Hole, California, which live in two places only: in the depths of a cavern slowly being permeated by radioactive water from the Nevada Test Site, and in a hundred-thousand-gallon refuge tank nearby, which is an exact replica of the original pool (what Kolbert describes as “a kind of fishy Westworld”). She subsequently delves into efforts to save coral reefs, where she takes us into two labs — one in Hawaii, one in Australia — that subject their specimens to “calibrated stress” in order to raise stronger coral and experiment with other reef-saving measures (e.g., “deploying underwater robots to reseed damaged reefs, developing some kind of ultra thin film to shade reefs, pumping deep water to the surface to provide corals with heat relief”).
The final chapter of this section finds Kolbert purchasing a genetic-engineering kit, which includes vials of E. coli and all the materials necessary to rearrange its genome from the comfort of her home. With some hands-on experience under her belt, she then travels to the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, where researchers are using CRISPR to edit the genome of poisonous cane toads in an effort to render the invasive species less dangerous to the native fauna that eat them. Here, Kolbert anticipates her readers’ pushback: “The strongest argument for gene editing…is also the simplest: what’s the alternative? Rejecting such technologies as unnatural isn’t going to bring nature back…. The issue, at this point, is not whether we’re going to alter nature, but to what end?” These moments, which offer a more philosophical take on the stakes of climate technology, are some of the book’s strongest.
Another highlight is the clarity with which Kolbert explains the technology, as in “Up in the Air,” the third section, which opens with a chapter on negative-emissions technologies (NETs). One solution involves scrubbing carbon emissions from the air and injecting the CO2 underground, where it hardens into rock; another, called BECCS (short for “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage”), combines reforestation with underground injection, and is favored by the IPCC for its resulting negative emissions and electrical power. This, Kolbert opines in one of the book’s most optimistic passages, is “a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too arrangement that, in climate-math terms, is tough to beat.”
The following chapter pivots from carbon removal to solar geoengineering, a subject of deep controversy. Kolbert is quick to acknowledge, especially in comparison with the previous solutions, how this tactic takes a dive off the deep end. “Even in an age of electrified rivers and redesigned rodents, solar geoengineering is out there,” she writes. “It has been described as ‘dangerous beyond belief,’ ‘a broad highway to hell,’ ‘unimaginably drastic,’ and also as ‘inevitable.’” Recounting conversations with the chemists and physicists who helm the field, Kolbert explains the current research that lends her book its title. Attempts to offset carbon dioxide levels by injecting particles into the stratosphere, for instance, “would change the appearance of the sky. White would become the new blue.” As with the “fishy Westworld,” Kolbert revels in the evocative artificiality of these engineered environments.
As the book closes, Kolbert struggles with the implications of climate technology, and of solar geoengineering in particular. Though the scientists she met demonstrated enthusiasm about their work, she notes a pervasive sense of doubt. The solutions “were presented to me less in a spirit of techno-optimism than what might be called techno-fatalism,” Kolbert observes. “They weren’t improvements on the originals; they were the best that anyone could come up with, given the circumstances.” We inhabit an imperfect world with imperfect solutions, and “It’s in this context that interventions like assisted evolution and gene drives and digging millions of trenches to bury millions of trees have to be assessed,” she concludes. “Geoengineering may be ‘entirely crazy and disconcerting,’ but if it could slow the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or take some of ‘the pain and suffering away,’ or help prevent no-longer-fully-natural ecosystems from collapsing, doesn’t it have to be considered?”
Kolbert also walks it back a bit as she wraps up the book, thinking about the complexity of actually enacting these solutions on a larger scale. As several of her interview subjects have pointed out, “scientists can only make recommendations; implementation is a political decision. You might hope that such a decision would be made equitably with respect to those alive today and to future generations, both human and nonhuman. But let’s just say the record here isn’t strong. (See, for example, climate change.)”
All told, the book offers a comprehensive look at the ethics of using diverse technological approaches to solve problems that we have created ourselves (often, getting back to the Anthropocene’s recursive logic, through the use of other technologies). In general, Kolbert refrains from taking a definitive stance on these solutions. But this objectivity is one of the book’s strong suits, for it enables the reader to think beyond the boundaries of “good” and “bad.” Instead, we’re asked to consider the inherent nuances involved in addressing a problem of this scale and severity: after all, a complicated issue demands complicated thought.
Writers: Swarnav S Pujari, Daniel Kriozere
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