As more and more companies join the net-zero movement, the marketplace for forestry-based carbon offset projects has soared. Consider Pachama, a San Francisco-based startup that uses remote sensing technology and machine learning to track the carbon-capturing trends of dozens of forests worldwide.
The project is an ingenious alternative to traditional forestry restoration and preservation projects. These are typically labor-intensive and lack the public transparency to verify the programs are as effective as they claim to be, partly due to methodological flaws that generate outdated data or inaccurate recordings.
Whereas traditional carbon offset projects run the risk of overestimating how much carbon a forest is storing or even selling meaningless carbon credits to protect areas that aren’t actually threatened, Pachama’s automated process ensures an organization’s carbon credits will actually make a difference.
The company uses a range of satellite data including LiDAR and high-resolution imaging to create 3D digital representations of forests. These images are then analyzed by advanced AI techniques that can reliably predict just how much carbon any given forest is capturing. Machine learning algorithms take into account factors such as tree crown sizes and shapes, tree species (species vary in how much carbon they store), levels of “greenness” in a forest, and other sophisticated features like the total biomass of a forest in order to yield an accurate estimate of carbon removal levels.
The platform also uses radar data alongside drones and on-the-ground sensors to track broader forest activity like biodiversity levels, illegal deforestation, or changes to forest cover over time.
“All these technologies, combined together, can replace some of the manual work that was done in the past to verify and monitor the amount of carbon being sequestered by a forest,” says Pachama CEO and co-founder Diego Saez Gil.
Companies looking to offset their carbon footprint can purchase carbon credits directly from Pachama’s marketplace. Organizations can choose from a list of high-impact, curated projects that have been pre-selected to meet international standards for carbon removal. Once chosen, projects are actively monitored using the company’s remote sensing technology.
“Many companies had considered investing in forest restoration and conservation but didn’t do it because of concerns about how they were going to ensure that the commitments from these projects were going to be reported,” Saez Gil said, referring to the verifiability and efficacy issues associated with traditional “cap and trade” programs like that of California.
Pachama’s reliable approach, backed by satellite imagery and machine learning, lends credibility to the growing carbon offsets industry. Despite its relative newness, (the company was only launched in 2018), Pachama counts companies like Microsoft and Spotify among its clients. The company also managed to secure $15 million in funding last spring is a testament to its appeal in the $600+ million carbon credit market.
Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the Bill Gates-led investment group working to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, led the investment round, which secured the backing of high-profile investors such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and tennis star Serena Williams.
In addition to attracting massive funding, the company was also recently named a “Technology Pioneer” by the World Economic Forum for its breakthrough innovations in the field of AI-based forest restoration.
“We have private companies launching nanosatellites into space and making that data available for others to consume. We [have] made tremendous progress on the field of artificial intelligence and deep learning. And we have cloud computing that allow us to process terabytes of data, even for a small startup like us,” Saez Gil said when asked about his inspiration for launching Pachama. “We saw these technologies being applied on other things, such as mining or defense.” The company was the first to apply them to monitor forestry-based decarbonization projects.
By 2030, the market for carbon offsets could be worth as much as $100 billion, up from just $300 million in 2018, according to experts. The increase in valuation arrives as governments worldwide pursue measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions and look into subsidizing promising new technologies.
Moreover, the emissions-trading reforestation market is extremely scalable. Over 2 billion hectares could be restored with more than a trillion trees, according to Fast Company. “We’re talking about one of the most scalable ways to sequester carbon to mitigate climate change,” says Saez Gil. “I think that this can really be the decade of forest restoration. The transparency and integrity of the claims is key. And we hope that these tools will help on that.”
Carbon offsets continue to be the preferred climate mitigation tactic of choice for companies making net zero commitments, in part because of their tremendous public support but also because they are the fastest and cheapest ways for companies to reduce emissions. Now that there is actually a verified carbon offset marketplace pioneered by Pachama, the demand for carbon removal projects will only become stronger.
Nathalie Voit is a freelance content creator and a graduate of the University of Florida. She is an alumni of The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program.