Learning #1: Can we use data and land to capture (a lot of) carbon dioxide?

Since Feb 21, I have been looking for a way to contribute to solving the climate crisis — first by speaking with scientists and entrepreneurs in the space (See here and here), then by running real world experiments to figure out what to focus on. Here is the first experiment I ran with Sam and what we learned in the process.

First, some context:

  • Future Forest’s great work showed that it is possible to layer reforestation, biochar and enhanced weathering on a given plot of land to increase the yield of carbon capture per hectare and that doing so rigorously allow to create premium carbon permits. (Disclosure, Sam and I are investors in the Future Forest and are big fans of Jim)
  • In this scenario the amount of CO2 captured scales as a function of the area covered by the full stack of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods.
  • There are many landowners the world over with large estates and who are keen to drive incremental returns from their land, especially if the methods have additional co-benefit (soil carbonization via biochar and enhanced weathering acts as a fertilizer for instance)
  • Yet CDR science is young, fragmented and not exactly trivial to find and make sense of, so most landowners are either not aware of it or ignore it.

The first experiment was about using data to make it easy for large landowners to roll out CDR on their land and remove carbon dioxide at scale while generating incremental revenue

Stacking methods per hectare to maximise the yield of CDR and create a virtuous cycle

Here are the hypothesis we wanted to validate:

  • Landowners will be interested in using their land to capture carbon providing it doesn’t conflict with existing land use
  • Some pieces of land have the potential to stack several methods, thereby dramatically increasing the amount of CO2 captured per hectare.
  • We can use publicly available data to model the CDR potential of individual pieces of land, find the highest yielding ones and facilitate the roll out of land-based techniques at scale.

In order to validate these hypotheses, we:

  • Found several large alpha users with large amounts of land (From tens of thousands of hectares to millions of hectares) and willing to investigate the carbon capture potential of their land with us;
  • Worked with world-class researchers out of University of Southampton and ETH Zurich to model the carbon capture potential using a range of data, for instance: temperature, humidity, soil composition, geological deposit, biological composition and transport infrastructure;
  • Work with people familiar with carbon markets to understand how the full value chain would operate, including what would a carbon right look like legally, how verification would work and how to finance large scale projects at Megaton scale.
Restor.eco, an amazing tool developed by ETH Zurich in partnership with Google to support restoration orgs.

After several months, we started receiving data and insights. Here is a short version of our Validated Learnings:

  • Land-owners are unquestionably keen to understand how to get involved in CDR, both for the impact and the incremental revenue. We had many incredible chats with sophisticated custodians of large estates, in several countries. There is little doubt that if anyone can package CDR into something convenient for landowners (convenient being low upfront investment and low operational burden), it should be possible to sign up landowners at scale and at pace;
  • Modelling the potential of “newer” techniques is unreliable as there are too few field experiments to understand exactly how specific input impacts yield — for instance on biochar or enhanced weathering. Worse, most data sets available today have low resolution, meaning that new local data has to be produced for each given plot (ie. costs will mount quickly at any decent scale) or the prediction is likely to merely be a rough approximation;
  • Measuring the actual carbon captured over time is a very complicated affair, involving complex large scale carbon life cycle analysis and a lot of sampling over time — including of water systems going all the way to the ocean. The verification is bound to be expensive, spread over years and, crucially, open for debate. This matters all the more that some of the most promising land-based CDR methods have high scientific risks: enhanced weathering’s yield varies by multiple orders of magnitude from one experiment to the next and the carbon balance of biochar is still heavily debated.
  • Speaking with several academics, it appears that the maximum carbon content of an ecosystem is its wild state. To put things differently, over time, the best strategy to capture carbon through land-management methods is to restore ecosystems. Anything above the natural carbon content will tend to leak and potentially go back into the atmosphere over the long run. It probably means that land-management CDR is about restoring the ecosystem, optimal CDR happening as a byproduct. In this scenario, land-management CDR may not be as incremental as other methods and could be ignored (or at least severely discounted) by the nascent negative emissions’ market.

What did we learn and where do we go from here?

There is unquestionable value in land-management solutions. But low-certainty predictions, high scientific risk and high operational cost of measurement mean that it would be very expensive to fund proper trials — both in time and money — and that buyers are likely to be reluctant to pre-buy permits at a big enough scale. Land-based carbon capture is likely to be best done by ecological restoration experts as a by product of their main restoration and conservation activities. This path doesn’t have the right profile to scale efficiently on a stand-alone basis as the negative emission’s markets grow.

As a result, Sam and I decided to shut down that experiment and to investigate other pathways with a profile more in line with our criteria: mineralization. To learn more about that and about turning containers into carbon capture factories, check the next post!