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What the former CEO of Reddit learned from Silicon Valley about planting trees

Yishan Wong is now in the business of planting trees to try to stop climate change. He says that new tech won’t solve the climate crisis—but old tech and scalability can.

What the former CEO of Reddit learned from Silicon Valley about planting trees
[Photos: Kevin Fleming/Getty Images, VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images]
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This is a make-or-break decade for our climate.

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We are not breaking our dependence on fossil fuels nearly fast enough. Even countries with extremely ambitious plans only aim to reach net zero by 2040 or 2050. Only then would the increase in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere begin to level off.

The latest IPCC report shows that even in an optimistic scenario, where countries successfully reach their net zero commitments by 2040-2050, the planet will warm beyond 2 degrees for the entire latter half of the century and beyond. In comparison, the weather disruptions we’ve all experienced in the past couple years are the result of only 1 degree of warming.

Thus, in addition to reducing emissions, we must begin removing CO2 from the atmosphere now in highly-scalable ways.

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Massive global reforestation is our best option. It’s the fastest, most efficient, and least risky solution. Countries, corporations, communities, and individuals can simultaneously implement this solution in parallel, all over the world, making it possible to achieve rapid progress.

And it’s a solution that is catching on: governments across the globe have already committed nearly 1 billion acres of land to restoration. Hundreds of organizations in the private and public sectors have made tree-planting commitments. The World Economic Forum’s One Trillion Trees initiative heralded a significant milestone in support of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

“One trillion trees” rolls off the tongue pretty easily, but it’s an enormous undertaking. And it’s just the start. How do we collect the two or three trillion seeds needed to grow one trillion trees (not every seed germinates and survives to adulthood)? How do we train millions of foresters around the world? Where do we find the water?

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That is where the Silicon Valley mindset comes into play.

[Source Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]
Silicon Valley is perhaps best known for new technologies. But there’s something else the Valley has created that is far more useful. This creation is not a piece of new technology, but a set of organizational and project management techniques designed to take a proven product or solution, overcome bottlenecks, and rapidly scale it into a massive world-class company, all while maintaining the key qualities and attributes of that original solution.  All of the billion-dollar tech companies you saw springing into existence over the past couple decades are work of experienced Silicon Valley veterans who are by now practiced in this organizational art.

When combined with deep forestry expertise, and the hard-won lessons learned by the global restoration community over the last 30-40 years, this scaling mentality creates a plausible pathway to massively reforesting the planet this decade. By hyperscaling reforestation, we can realize the natural carbon capture of forests at the rate necessary to change our climate future.

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Here are three lessons I’m taking from my time in tech and applying to the climate mission.

Lesson 1: Avoid the newest technology if you want a solution that scales fast

People are always wowed by new technology. They think it’ll be the answer to all our problems. But here’s my most important lesson from working in tech: New technology is the most unreliable technology. It has bugs. It has a high failure rate, and the highest risk of unintended consequences.

If you are trying to solve a problem on the magnitude of climate change in a short amount of time, you need a tool that is completely reliable, easy to build, and easy to use.

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I am not knocking technology-based solutions. Indeed, I am a technologist at heart. But with the limited time available to solve a high-stakes, global problem, we shouldn’t make the challenge harder by introducing additional risk. We need to deploy proven, reliable technology and scale it to meet our most urgent present-day needs.

Trees are a mature technology. We know that they work. Their risks are well-understood, they are widely available, and there are thousands of custom variants for every region, land type, and ecosystem. They are Earth’s most reliable carbon capture tech.

Trees already have trillions of “installed units”—billions of acres of forest, already sequestering billions of tons of CO2 annually.  Making more is the most straightforward solution.

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Lesson 2: Taking a product idea to a global stage takes decades

A common objection to forests as a climate solution is that trees “take too long to grow,” so technologically-oriented solutions must be the answer. But new technology isn’t fast.

You must get it to work in the lab, refine it into a consumer product, and build distribution networks to scale out billions of units. Each of these steps can take a decade or more to accomplish.

Look at cell phones: one of the most useful tech products in modern history, with no shortage of demand. Motorola marketed the first cell phone in 1973. As of 2020, nearly 70% of the global population subscribes to mobile services. As one of the fastest-growing industries of all time, achieving worldwide adoption still took nearly half a century.

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Reforestation may be able to achieve that level of global impact in half the time. A forest needs 10-25 years to grow and ramp up its carbon capture. Yet in the meantime, young trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere starting from the moment they are planted and exhibit some of their fastest carbon capture during their teenage years.

This is the only carbon capture tech ready to scale to gigaton levels now.

Lesson 3: Automate where possible and parallelize everything else

Climate change is daunting because of the sheer scale of the problem. But a program of reforestation carried out all over the world in a decentralized manner, through multiple, parallel efforts, each customized to its local ecosystem and community, could realize progress at the rate we need.

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Our restoration solutions center on massively parallelizing forestry. For example, we are decentralizing seed bank infrastructure, and offering open-source apps and training, which can build a cohort of trained experts ready to execute restoration projects around the globe.

Terraformation has already been backed by a large number of angels and investors, but this company is ultimately not about them, and their support cannot provide the sustaining momentum needed to change the future. Every person on the planet has a personal stake in the success of every green tech and climate-oriented company.

We know what forests can do. We know how to restore and nurture them. I am confident that it is the climate solution most likely to succeed in the shortest amount of time, and I invite you to join me in implementing it on a global scale, starting now.

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Yishan Wong is the CEO of  Terraformation.