Before there was carbon-capture technology, there were trees. They pull carbon dioxide from the air for photosynthesis and then store it, sometimes for decades; a white oak captures and stores carbon throughout its 200-year life. It’s estimated that America’s forests sequester about 866 million tons of carbon annually.
Many companies benefit from nature’s oldest tech. They offset the carbon emissions caused by their operations by paying for reforestation (the planting of new trees) or by paying to preserve forests (i.e. not cutting down trees). But the opportunity to sell carbon credits to businesses has often been reserved for the largest landowners; those who can afford to make decades-long commitments to maintain their trees and withstand costs of up to $200,000 to assess their land’s carbon storage potential. That has sidelined small landowners and erased sequestration opportunities on 200 million forest acres in the U.S.
That’s according to NCX, or National Capital Exchange, a carbon marketplace whose cofounder, Zack Parisa, and chief sustainability officer, Jen Jenkins, join us on today’s episode of the World Changing Ideas podcast. They tell us how they’re looping in those forgotten small landowners, using proprietary tech to assess their lands’ carbon-storage potential, and helping them maximize their income by encouraging them to delay harvesting so they can benefit from carbon credits. In other words, earning money simply by preserving and maintaining the existing trees on their land.
The crux of NCX’s carbon exchange is Basemap, its AI model that assesses millions of acres of forests. “We’re using satellite imagery and some ground measurements to assess the number, size, and species of every tree in the United States,” says Parisa, who grew up in southeastern Alabama surrounded by independent family landowners. That means zero cost to landowners for land assessment; NCX only asks that landowners commit to defer harvesting their trees for one year at a time (it doesn’t require any acre minimums).
On the podcast, Parisa tells us how Basemap evaluates the economic likelihood of a forest’s timber harvest, based on factors like proximity to mills and timber prices. Then it calculates the benefits of deferring that harvest by preserving and reforesting trees, giving landowners a yearly income while they wait for trees to mature. “Turns out most landowners aren’t excited about cutting trees down, it’s just that they have costs they have to cover,” he says. “For us, it’s about putting all of the benefits of forests on the same economic footing as timber” and “to make [trees] more valuable alive than dead.”
NCX connects the landowners with buyers, including Microsoft, Cargill, and Rubicon. Empowering them further, they let the landowners name their acreages and prices in a reverse-auction system. “We’re literally looking acre by acre to evaluate what the opportunity is for a landowner to harvest,” Parisa says. “That’s how we can figure out how much somebody might be paid to not cut trees, to sell not-logs.” NCX now works with 2,470 landowners across 4.3 million acres.
Parisa and Jenkins also address one of the common criticisms of carbon credit plans: that they give companies, which can afford the offsets, a pass to continue harmful carbon-emitting practices. He views the offsets as “the on-ramp” to our green infrastructure of the future. “We need to move to a fully decarbonized economy and quit pumping new CO2 into the atmosphere,” Parisa admits. “It’s also true that we need to remove carbon from the atmosphere as quickly as we can.”