Our atmosphere currently has alarmingly high CO2 levels.
We have reached stage 2 of human-made climate change, which means that even if today we stopped emitting entirely, positive feedback loops would require us to remove an excess of at least 300 Gt CO2 from the atmosphere in order to return to stable levels. The technology of industrial carbon capture and storage is still far from being able to sequester atmospheric carbon at realistic prices and meaningful scale. Carbon sequestration through afforestation is gaining popularity and while being highly beneficial for our ecosystems, it alone cannot remove enough carbon and store it safely. (1bn hectare additional forest will sequester ca. 0,76 Gt of CO2 annually)
The world needs a technology capable of sequestering carbon.
And storing it permanently in a large enough sink. To do this at sufficient speed and scale, this technology needs to be not only affordable, but profitable. We already have this technology today.
The technology is sustainable agriculture and it has consistently proven capable of sequestering carbon in the soil, if managed correctly. Research by Megan B. Machmuller et.al. shows that through proper grazing rotation, farms were able to accumulate 8t of SOC (soil organic carbon) per hectare per year, which translates to 29,36t CO2 / h / y. Similar numbers have been achieved around the world in different climates. This potential is not limited to grazing systems. Researchers at the CSU Chico have shown that through the application of compost, it is possible to capture an average of more than 11t of CO2 / h / y in rangeland soils and more than 36.7t of CO2 / h / y in transitioning farmland soils. Extrapolated to the global crop and pasture land, we are talking about a potential of 57,99Gt (crop land) and of 96,30Gt (pasture land) respectively, of annual CO2 sequestration.
This means, agriculture has the potential to not only sequester 8 times the global annual CO2 increase (20Gt), but also capture atmospheric carbon and therefore reduce the total CO2 concentration from the atmosphere.
TrueCarbon enables the first carbon market which views greenhouse gas capture not as a cost, but as a potential source of income for a vulnerable sector and a key to long-term sustainability. We support the soil carbon market by solving its two weaknesses: The high cost of soil carbon assessment and the lack of trust among market participants. To accurately assess one hectare worth of soil carbon, a three-dimensional assessment across the field is required, entailing about 55 measurements. The current cost of a single soil carbon lab test is at around 30€, which makes this approach prohibitively expensive. By using on-site laser spectroscopy (LIBS - see links), we can reduce the cost per measurement to an estimated 0.11€ . In the medium-term we will pool data gathered through laser spectroscopy with available data from soil institutes and universities to build a fully digital machine-learning-based model to assess soil stocks capacity and globally in the future. In the light of the Paris Agreement and ongoing efforts of the UN to combat climate change, it can be expected that governments around the world will have a growing interest in establishing an emissions-negative agricultural industry as a means to reach the self-set emissions objectives. TrueCarbon builds the cost-effective verification technology necessary to enable trust in the market for governments and corporations to get invested.
As a founding team we each have been brought up in close connection with nature, and have turned towards a career in start-ups and technology. As purpose-driven individuals, we have been involved in a range of ventures, looking for the strongest leverage for positive change.
We are strongly driven by the urgent need to get a grip on climate change. It is too late to apply band-aids or wait for anyone else to take action. At this time, we need a range of systemic changes which employ the dynamics of our current economic and political system to promote sustainability and regeneration. Our commitment is to build the trigger which can have an avalanche effect on one of the most impacting industries of our planet - agriculture.
We are four founders with varied skills and backgrounds:
- Philippe Birker has been building up the communities of Viva con Agua, Stichting Love Foundation and Fairphone and will be heading the relations and cooperations with soil research institutes, farmers and volunteers to gather and pool soil carbon data, as well as establish a network for knowledge exchange about regenerative practices among farmers.
- Ivo Degn has been actively involved in the field of impact entrepreneurship, as a founder of his first venture Knowmads, through the Changemaker network of Ashoka and most recently as ProjectTogether’s COO and Head of Product, building Europe’s largest incubation program for social ventures, together with BCG DV. His previous experience includes the analysis of success factors for both for- and non-profit ventures, data-driven product development, as well as team leadership and strategy development.
- Sebastian Graf, has an extensive and varied background in robotics engineering, hardware and software development, having worked in R&D at FabLab Berlin and Additec. A second-generation Silicon Valley-raised entrepreneur, he combines technical experience and an entrepreneurial mindset with an ambitious vision to develop technology that has a positive impact on our planet, to provide solutions to the problems of our time, such as the climate crisis. He has had great success communicating our company’s vision at various events and liaising with potential investors over the last few months.
- Dr. Djen Kühnel completed his PhD in Robotics and Autonomous Systems at the University of Bristol where he worked, among other things, on developing robotics applications for precision agriculture. Having grown-up in an ecovillage, he has a strong drive to use his technological and scientific knowledge to develop impactful solutions to combat climate change and preserve our ecosystems. He is currently the scientific lead for the development of our soil sensing solution. Due to previous professional commitments, he is not able to work full-time for TrueCarbon until the end of 2020, but will function as a scientific advisor in the meantime.
How big is the extended team?
We are three people working full time, with Dr. Djen Kühnel taking on a part-time advisory role. We are also currently on the lookout for a soil scientist and data scientist to join our team and help us build a data model for soil carbon measurements.
In addition, we have started building an extensive network of experts and advisors across the relevant disciplines from soil science and carbon farming practices to laser spectroscopy and machine learning which we can draw on.
We can count on Dr. Andrei Borisovich Rozanov and Dr. ir. Agnes van den Pol-van Dasselaar as advisors for soil science and agricultural practices.
Tanja Kufner of dynamics.vc/Techstars advises us on the financial and start-up perspective.
Regarding reducing costs in sensing techniques and robotics, we are being advised by with Neil Gershenfeld of MIT.
What challenges are we addressing?
The mission of TrueCarbon is to support the development of agricultural methods capable of producing crops at scale while capturing large amounts of atmospheric carbon.
We harness the unparalleled power of agriculture to capture CO2 by establishing economic incentives for farmers so they can become a major contributor in the world’s fight against climate change.
The main problem limiting the development of a meaningful soil carbon certificate market is the high cost of soil carbon measurement and verification. We aim to solve this barrier through LIBS (laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy) in a first phase, and a fully digital machine learning-based model in the second phase.
Currently, agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the energy sector. At the same time, it is one of the most vulnerable industries to global warming. According to the IPCC, crop yield losses as a result of climate change will be a major challenge to the agricultural sector and to food security globally.
Soils are a major carbon sink, naturally holding more carbon (9.909 Gt) than the atmosphere (3.212 Gt) and terrestrial vegetation (2.202 Gt) combined. Research has shown that by adopting climate-smart agricultural methods, farmers are capable of capturing large amounts of atmospheric carbon (up to 150 Gt annually) and storing it safely in the soil. In essence, those methods consist of increasing the soil organic matter (SOM) content and reducing soil disturbance. The specific methods and mechanisms are described in more detail in the links posted above.
Additional to its climatic impact, a high soil organic carbon (SOC) content provides nutrients to plants and improves water holding capacity, both of which enhance soil fertility and ultimately improve food productivity.
Farmers who apply regenerative methods could benefit greatly from the growing demand for carbon offsetting. TrueCarbon aims to connect farmers directly with the global carbon offsetting markets. Those would provide the necessary financial incentive to switch from high-emission practices to sequestration practices.
The potential is amazing: Farmers can sequester carbon while enhancing fertility of their soil, improving profits on the production side and through certificate sales.
The market demand for soil carbon certificates is high, from individuals, corporations, as well as from governments. The UN, EU and FAO show a growing interest in the potential of soil and agriculture to reach national emission objectives. Governments have taken the commitment to voluntarily cap their overall national emissions. Investing in carbon-neutral agriculture will be one of the principal tools to lower national emissions.
Soil carbon is not yet being certified by any of the major offsetting standards. Costs and complexity of soil carbon assessment at the current technological approach are too high to allow for a meaningful market.
TrueCarbon resolves this bottleneck by offering cost-effective soil carbon assessments. Offering scalable and low-cost carbon stock assessments enables the development of a major new market. Our role in the market is the trusted third-party verifier of soil carbon for carbon trading or offsetting platforms. With the growing demand for such technology, we see a very relevant niche both in terms of profits and the effect on the global climate crisis.
TrueCarbon aims to influence the agricultural industry by incentivizing farmers to adopt climate-smart agricultural methods which capture atmospheric carbon. In that way, we directly affect SDG #13 and enhance a technology which is able to capture sufficiently large amounts of CO2 to return our climate to stable levels.
Agriculture has a significant effect on the world’s natural resources. Over one third of global land is in agricultural use. Industrial agriculture has increased food security globally, but at the same time, its reliance on chemical and mechanical inputs has harmed biodiversity, enhanced erosion and lowered groundwater globally.
By adopting these same practices, farmers also follow what is called “regenerative agriculture”, i.e. a style of agriculture which promotes biodiversity, drought-resistance and reduced chemical inputs.
Our indirect impact therefore is the promotion of a global shift in the agricultural industry towards sustainability and regeneration which benefits the world’s natural heritage. The widespread adoption of climate-smart regenerative agriculture thereby mitigates both the causes and the effects of climate change. (SDG #13.1)
Agriculture is currently responsible for about one quarter of global carbon emissions, a major part of which is due to land-use changes such as clear-cutting or burning of primary rainforests. Farmers who can’t sustain soil fertility over time are continually forced to expand into natural ecosystems. Promoting and incentivising regenerative agricultural practices will help to maintain fertility and reduce the need for farming activity to endanger natural ecosystems and forests. (SDG #11.4)
Regenerative agriculture goes a step further than sustainable organic agriculture in its ability to replenish groundwater, build fertile topsoil and strengthen ecosystem resilience. By binding carbon in humus soil, regenerative agriculture enhances the natural capacity of soil to hold water. Even 1% additional soil carbon enhances the ability of one hectare of soil to hold water by almost 200.000 liters. This allows for the regeneration of already degraded farmland and the permanent cultivation of poor soils. These co-benefits of regenerative agriculture can enable and ensure long-term food security and maintenance of natural resources under human management. (SDG #12.2)
Poorly managed soils are prone to erosion. Tillage and pesticides harm soil structure, which in the case of major rain events leads to the loss of valuable topsoil, as well as to the secondary damages caused by soil carried during flooding events. Regenerative agriculture builds and maintains soil structure and soil cover which increases water retention and greatly reduces erosion. This leads to an increased resilience to climate change effects, such as droughts, storms and excessive rain. (SDG #11.5)
Regenerative agriculture reduces the need of chemicals in agriculture, both in the form of fertilizers and pesticides. By building healthy soil ecosystems and enhancing fertility through soil organic matter (SOM), regenerative agriculture is able to substantially cut down on the usage of artificial inputs. (SDG #12.4)
The cost of agricultural inputs and the risk of a changing climate challenge farmers in developing countries especially. Implementing regenerative practices which reduce inputs and build resilience to climate change are important elements to maintain farmers’ livelihoods in developing countries. As the global price for soil carbon certificates rise and become more standardised, farmers in developing countries stand to win most if scalable digital certification approaches can be developed to funnel offsetting revenues into their operations. (SDG #12.A)
The Paris Agreement has put governments on a path towards an integrated greenhouse gas inventory across industries. Agriculture offers the biggest potential for governments to offset industrial emissions, by far larger than forestry or industrial offsetting.
Only if practices and verification data for the CO2 sequestration potential of agriculture exist, can policy reinforce these practices and promote implementation on a global scale. TrueCarbon aims to provide policy makers with reliable data to form compelling arguments to invest government funds and subsidies into national carbon offsetting through agricultural practices. (SDG #13.2)
We support the goal of encouraging companies to adopt sustainable practices by allowing them to invest directly into a carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative footprint and present this to their stakeholders. (SDG #12.6)
The data on soil carbon and on climate-smart practices which we collect will contribute to a global catalogue of best-practices for large-scale regenerative agriculture under different climate and soil conditions. This knowledge base will be invaluable for food producers in adjusting to changing climates. (SDG #13.3)
How do we measure this impact?
Again, please take the UN SDG goals #11, #12, and #13 into account.
TrueCarbon will establish a direct connection between carbon farmers and the offsetting markets. This will enable farmers to sell an additional harvest of carbon certificates. This financial incentive can catalyse the global transition towards regenerative/climate-smart farming.
To confirm our hypothesis that financial incentives will move farmers globally towards the adoption of regenerative methods, we will measure our direct impact by the increase in the rate of change of carbon capture over time for the farms we work with. For net emitting farms, we expect to see a change towards carbon neutrality. From farms which are carbon-neutral or net-consumers of CO2, we expect to see an accelerated uptake of CO2 after beginning to work with us.
TrueCarbon follows a vision of systemic change, which is characterised by indirect impact through larger players. Additionally to our direct impact described above, we will contribute to the recognition of agriculture as a potential tool for large-scale mitigation and the integration of regenerative/climate-smart agriculture into national climate change policy, which in turn will lead to meaningful economic impact.
What kind of support does True Carbon need?
At this stage, we need to validate the below assumptions regarding the market potential and the resulting business model, as well as the feasibility of applying a machine learning model to the challenge of accurately assessing soil carbon stocks based on sparse measurements combined with data collected remotely (satellite imagery, weather data, etc.).
We currently work under the following assumptions:
- The demand for carbon offsets will grow strongly within the next few years.
- The public will demand carbon neutrality from corporates
- The public will demand carbon neutrality from governments
- Governments will involve themselves with the offsetting markets, and potentially connect the compliance market with current voluntary offsetting markets. This will lead to regulation, higher standards and increased demand.
- The prices for sufficiently accurate soil carbon measurement are too high currently to make a business model based on soil carbon offsets interesting, both for farmers and traders/buyers.
- By developing scalable methods for assessing soil carbon with sufficient accuracy, we trigger market dynamics that will promote regenerative/climate-smart agriculture.
- Assessing global soil carbon stocks is of interest not only for carbon offsetting, but also for research and governments under the Paris Agreement, providing various use cases for the collected data and thus creating alternative revenue streams.
Our extended team at this moment is very well placed to start this venture.
By the beginning of 2020 it is our vision to rapidly develop and grow TrueCarbon into the main provider of trusted soil carbon assessments and enable this market to grow substantially.
To prepare for explosive growth, we want to focus on putting our venture on a stable foundation of market research, sound technological choices and clear working hypothesis for future development. This will enable us to attract the investment necessary to scale our operations. Currently, we are aiming for a seed round of ~1.2 million by the end of our potential collaboration with BCG DV, which would give us a runway until at least the end of 2020 to provide a proof of concept and continue to raise money.
What is our current stage of development?
We have done extensive research and have built an advisory network of researchers and experts on the relevant topics, as described above. Potential partners and future clients such as Carbon Trade Exchange (https://ctxglobal.com/) have signaled clear interest in purchasing / reselling soil carbon certificates.
We already have interest from several angel investors and one VC fund, focused on environmental challenges.
We are now to confirm the viability and feasibility of our product, define a development strategy, raise funds and build the technical team.
We have entered validation stage,
With interested future clients, a validated market niche and a detailed technological concept. The company is going to be incorporated within the coming weeks. There is no prototype of the product yet.
We partnered with the soil scientists of Wageningen (NL) and Magdeburg (DE) university for the research on soil, as well as laser specialists from the RWTH Aachen for the development of LIBS soil carbon measurement devices.
We’re in partnership conversations with a large network of commercial farms in Denmark, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands to begin soil sampling.
What is our competitive niche and are others doing something similar?
As verifiers for voluntary carbon offsets, we move in the same field as Gold Standard, the Carbon Trust Standard, WWF’s Forest Carbon Standard, The Climate, Community & Biodiversity Standards (CCBS) and others.
Most of those standards do not actually verify the capture of atmospheric CO2, but the reduced emission through enhanced efficiency. Few standards, such as the CCBS, certify land-use projects. Currently there is no standard offering trust in soil carbon. This is our principal environment.
There are a number of offsetting platforms in existence, some of which focus on carbon capture through trees (such as Tree-Nation, Treedom), while others focus on improving efficiency (such as atmosfair). Those provide carbon farmers with a relevant market for their certificates and will be partners in our endeavour.
There are initial carbon offsetting platforms focusing primarily on soil carbon (such as Indigo Ag, Nori, CarboCert or this initiative by the ecovillage Kaindorf). They struggle with the challenges described above, of costly measurements and no third-party validation. Our primary focus is on providing accurate soil carbon assessments, which makes those platforms our direct customers.
All offsetting platforms run into the challenge of accurately measuring the actual CO2 captured.
Pachama solves this problem in a similar way as TrueCarbon would, but specifically for carbon captured by trees, not for carbon stored underground.
Companies like Teralytic or Aerobotics use sensor or satellite data to assess the fertility of agricultural soil. Their focus is entirely on yield improvements and pest reduction, not on soil carbon specifically.
The 4p1000 initiative promotes regenerative agriculture by setting the goal of 0.4% annual growth rate of organic carbon content in the top 40 cm of global agricultural soils. They are an advocacy group and knowledge exchange platform which we can potentially use to disseminate our measurement technology.