Until recently, a remote corner of the Big Island of Hawaii was barren. The area was originally an ancient sandalwood forest, but hundreds of years ago, when the trees were cut down to sell the wood and cattle started grazing on the land, it became what is now essentially desert. Today, a startup is piloting a new system to bring the forest back on a 45-acre plot—and to demonstrate an approach to reforest the planet quickly enough to fight climate change.
Trees can play a key role in capturing carbon at scale—by one estimate, nearly a billion hectares of land could feasibly be reforested with a trillion trees, and those trees could potentially store more than 200 gigatons of carbon. But efforts at reforestation are moving too slowly. “Essentially, we need to scale the solution in about 10 years, so that there is time for the forest to mature and become a carbon sink of reasonable size to meet various nations’ commitments to be net zero around 2040 or 2050,” says Yishan Wong, CEO of the Hawaii-based startup, called Terraformation.
Wong, who previously served as CEO of Reddit, has a tech-world mindset to solving problems and scalability. Even goals that sound ambitious now—say, planting 10 billion trees by 2030—don’t go far enough, he says. “Ten billion trees is actually 1% of the problem, and 1% in 10 years is not going to get us there,” Wong says. “Most plans are like, we’re going to plant a billion trees by the end of the century. That isn’t even close. By examining the full scale of the problem, we can create this map and say, okay, if we wanted to plant, roughly speaking, forests worth a trillion trees . . . then [we’d] have to pass through several scaling milestones at an exponential rate over the next 10 years.”
One of the challenges the company identified was the lack of land: Some land that was originally forested is now covered by cities or used for farming. Other areas might not be available for sale. But there’s a large amount of desertified land that is available. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification reports that around 4.7 billion acres on the planet—about twice the size of China—have been affected by drought or desertification, but could potentially be restored. Finding enough water to grow trees there is a challenge. But the folks at Terraformation believe that if desalinated water is used to irrigate seedlings, a restored forest will eventually be able to sustain itself.
In Hawaii, the startup built the world’s largest fully off-grid, solar-powered desalination system. With a half-acre of solar panels, there’s enough power to desalinate around 34,000 gallons of water per day, taken from a well on the site. A drip irrigation system sends the water to the roughly 1,900 native trees and shrubs that have been planted in the area so far. As the forest grows, proving that the system works, the company is working to replicate the same idea around the world. It’s creating seed banks that fit inside shipping containers and can store the millions of native seeds that are necessary for large planting projects. It’s also building open-source software that groups can use to collect data and track progress after trees are planted.
“There’s actually no reason why any company that’s working on any sort of natural carbon capture solution should be doing anything proprietary,” Wong says. “I think people still have that reflex, but the addressable market is literally like 1,000 times bigger than any single organization can possibly address. . . . We actually want a million copycats. We want to give out our technology and our techniques as widely as possible. We’re showing that it works. And then we’ll tell everyone, this is what we do, and you can copy us. That’s really the only way we’re going to actually achieve an order of magnitude increase in the acreage that is reforested per year.”
Like any single climate solution, restoring forests won’t fix the whole problem—climate experts argue that we still need to focus on decarbonizing the economy and, critically, protecting the forests that already exist. But reforestation can help draw down the excess carbon that’s already in the atmosphere and already leading to disastrous hurricanes, wildfires, and other extreme weather events. And Wong argues that it could play a huge role even on its own.
“The way that we originally calculated this solution was based on the most pessimistic view of what everyone else would do—which is that we assumed that the world would totally fail in reducing emissions and decarbonizing the grid,” he says. “Before this election went this way, you could actually say that might have been true. . . . The way to solve the problem is you have to create a large enough carbon sink to both offset all human emissions, as well as draw down the excess in the atmosphere within a reasonable amount of time.”
Now, Wong says, as work to decarbonize the economy picks up speed, we may need to plant fewer trees, but forests will still be critical—and could help restore a stable climate more quickly.