How AI Startup Pachama Wants to Make Carbon Offsets More Transparent

Pachama review
There's been a series of recent articles about dodgy companies providing fake carbon offsets. Restoring and preserving forests is an easy and low-cost approach to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. But when fraudulent players get into the game, it doesn't bode well for the cause. Pachama, a San Francisco startup who has raised so far $24.3 million, decided to tackle this problem head on. The company focuses on removing carbon from the atmosphere by restoring and protecting forest.

There’s been a series of recent articles about dodgy companies providing fake carbon offsets. Restoring and preserving forests is an easy and low-cost approach to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. But when fraudulent players get into the game, it doesn’t bode well for the cause.

Pachama, a San Francisco startup who has raised so far $24.3 million, decided to tackle this problem head on. The company focuses on removing carbon from the atmosphere by restoring and protecting forest.

But the team decided to go a step further: use AI technology, data, and automation to offer the most trusted and transparent carbon offset marketplace out there.

How Pachama planted its seeds

Pachama is the brainchild of Diego Saez-Gil and Tomás Aftalion, two Argentinians with diverse yet interconnected backgrounds.

Saez-Gil left his home in northern Argentina to develop a plethora of tech companies around the world. In 2011 Saez-Gill co-founded WeHostels, one of the first mobile-only travel booking apps. This was acquired by StudentUniverse in 2013. He worked for this company until the end of 2014.

In 2015 he co-founded Bluesmart, which developed the world’s first smart luggage system, featuring GPS/3G location tracking, remote locking, and digital weighing. In 2018, the company was acquired by Travelpro.

After a decade away from home, the serial entrepreneur returned to South America and planned a trip to Peru to explore the Amazon Rainforest.

Here, he saw first-hand the destruction and devastation caused by deforestation for industries like palm oil production and illegal logging.

The future of this part of Earth, once a powerhouse for offsetting carbon emission, hung in the balance. This brought about the idea of Pachama.

Aftalion worked as an analyst, data scientist, and machine learning engineer and is now the co-founder and chief technical officer of Pachama. In 2010, he co-founded BigDeal, a company based in Buenos Aires that gives users discount vouchers to various activities, restaurants, and retail offerings.

Saez-Gil moved to California where Aftalion resided. Aftalion was focused on figuring out how to use technology to protect and restore the natural world. Here, the pair combined their experience and skills and sowed the seeds for Pachama to grow.

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The root of Pachama’s carbon removal focus

Pachama’s focus is to remove carbon from the atmosphere, rather than reducing emissions, through carbon forest projects.

Forests bring down levels of atmospheric carbon, making reforestation a scalable and cost-effective method to achieve Pachama’s mission.

Each of the 21 projects that exist on Pachama’s platform has been rigorously inspected, ensuring all investments are fully utilized. This is how the company avoids some of the dodgy deals I mentioned earlier.

Pachama’s transparent and accessible marketplace gives people and companies the opportunity to offset their emissions by contributing to these restorative forest projects.

Companies or individuals can purchase carbon credits through the marketplace by investing in a project, or in a portfolio of projects.

Pachama is, therefore, able to address climate change to scale, while simultaneously giving people and businesses the power to make informed decisions about the climate solutions they support.

Technology and trees

Through LiDAR imaging, Pachama creates 3D representations of forests to measure them. This is combined with other satellite data, specifically high-resolution imaging.

The satellite data is analyzed using artificial intelligence. Machine learning algorithms process huge amounts of data so that features, such as tree crown sizes and shapes can be identified and used to estimate carbon quantities.

Pachama’s satellite models are trained using a network of partner field plots. These are applied to new forests, where carbon and biomass can be estimated rather than manually measured.

Using machine learning models, Pachama can answer certain questions about a particular forest. It can model a forest’s history, for example, to determine what would become of the forest without a carbon project. Radar data is also used to monitor a canopy for real-time deforestation.

The overall goal is to develop these tools into a suite so that people and companies can create new forest carbon projects across the world.

Pachama has six criteria to evaluate forest carbon projects. These were adopted from the United Nations and mixed in with some of Pachama’s tech magic.

The criteria include:

1. Real

Pachama doesn’t want to fund fraudsters. That’s why they first check if projects are real. A project developer will give Pachama a forest boundary which is then overlaid on remote sensing data to see if an actual forest project exists in this location.

2. Additional

Pachama then works out if the project has extra carbon perks over what might happen if the project didn’t exist.

Using historical remote sensing data to find additional perks, forest stock in the project boundary is compared with forests nearby.

If the forest project indicates better trends than unprotected forests nearby, then that means Pachama has struck gold and additional carbon benefits exist.

If a project shows no real difference in the rate of deforestation or regrowth inside and outside the boundary, there are no additional benefits.

Low additionality is when a project is deforested as quickly as the areas surrounding it, or if it has little to no risk of deforestation at all.

Remote sensing data is contextualized to see if a project is proactively protecting its forest. Pachama checks if there is security against illegal logging, tree planting, and less timber harvesting.

Pachama also uses remote sensing analysis to see if a project is causing harmful damage or leakage in surrounding areas.

 

3. Permanent

Are the carbon benefits going to stick around or ghost us? Trees cannot store carbon forever so when one dies it stops absorbing carbon and that storage is eventually released back into the atmosphere. Destruction of an entire forest reverses carbon sequestration.

Permanence refers to the risk of damage that may happen to a forest through natural causes or human activity. Existing prevention and mitigation plans are considered too.

Assessing deforestation risk includes:

  • Land ownership status

  • Project timeframe

  • Resources for protecting against illegal deforestation

4. Verifiable

Like purchasing something online, Pachama’s projects require a two-step verification process.

Verification is done on of the number of carbon credits issued as well as the carbon benefits these are supposed to represent.

A third-party organization will check the project and its carbon credits to see if these have been documented.

Using remote-sensing data and machine learning models, Pachama quantifies the number of additional benefits. These are compared to the carbon credits offered by a project.

To do this, the biomass in and outside of a project’s boundaries are compared, essentially estimating the net carbon benefit of the project in its lifetime.

If a project overestimates its carbon benefits or doesn’t clearly outline the number of credits on offer, then Pachama won’t take it on.

 

5. Enforceable

To avoid being fraudulent, projects and their carbon credits are tracked through registries. These have defined rules and tracking mechanisms to guarantee integrity.

6. Impactful beyond carbon

Pachama considers how local communities and the surrounding ecosystems are affected by projects. The team works closely with project developers to figure out how to make a difference.

To ensure the long-term sustainability of a project, members of a community are consulted and brought on board. The projects are then promoting climate equity and creating economic opportunity.

The 21 projects of Pachama

Pachama currently has 21 projects dotted around the world: from the United States to Mexico, South America, Africa, and Papua New Guinea. Each project contains a description of the work being done, as well as “co-benefits” which pertain to the community-based impact the project has, allowing corporates or individuals to choose a project that best aligns with their goals. Take a look at the projects here.

Additionally, Pachama grouped projects in nearby geographic areas that support similar work and offer similar co-benefits, together. These portfolios give purchasers the opportunity to support multiple projects at once. The portfolios are:

 
  • The Northern Atlantic: A bundle of forestry and conservation projects protecting forests in the eastern United States.

  • Amazon: A collection of conservation projects preserving forests and fighting illegal logging at the forefront of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest.

  • Reforestation: Projects around South America and Africa that plant new trees in degraded forests.

 

Pachama’s 4-step process of going net-zero

  1. Measure: Contact Pachama to measure your company’s impact through their calculator.

  2. Explore: Check out the marketplace to determine which project or portfolio aligns best with company goals.

  3. Purchase: Credits can be bought online or the team can help you to do so if you need more assistance.

  4. Share: Here you will receive your certificate of carbon credit retirement, allowing you to share your impact and hopefully inspire others to take action too.

 

Making AI work for the environment

Pachama is a great example of how entrepreneurial-minded individual can come up with creative tech solutions to address some of our biggest challenges. The financial backing the company has received so far, along with a myriad of public recognitions, shows that it found the right approach.

Keep an eye on them! I’m sure they’ll keep coming up with even more innovation to make carbon offset marketplaces more trustworthy and truly work for the environment.

 

 


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