Frequently Asked Questions

Aren’t there better ways to stop climate change?

How does Terraformation help solve climate change?

Reforestation is the most cost-effective, safe, and immediately scalable carbon capture solution. Our mission is to catalyze the restoration of 3 billion acres of native forest in the next decade to reverse climate change.

We focus on solutions to rate-limiting factors that slow restoration and lead to high project failure rates. The five largest bottlenecks are: freshwater shortages, depleted seed supplies, inefficient workflows, lack of on-the-ground technical expertise, and insufficient financing.

We have developed and tested a suite of tools and services to solve these bottlenecks across diverse locations. These include:

  • solar-powered desalination to irrigate desertified regions
  • shippable, modular seed banks to safely store seeds and protect viability
  • open-source software to optimize team work flows
  • technical training and site-specific forestry planning
  • project financing
  • carbon credit consulting
Isn’t it better to reduce fossil fuel emissions?

A full climate solution will require both a clean energy transition and carbon capture.

Curbing emissions is very difficult. Some technologies, like aircraft, will be particularly challenging to power from renewable energy. Even extremely ambitious national plans only aim to reach net-zero by 2040 or 2050. And then, we’ll still need to remove the existing surplus of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to reduce climate impacts.

Carbon drawdown from reforestation can help offset those emissions, closing the gap between current reduction efforts and the rapid climate action we need.

Isn’t it a better idea to stop deforestation?

Ending the destruction of native forests is essential. We lose about 15 to 20 million acres of native forests every year. That’s an area the size of Portugal. Every acre destroyed releases the forest’s stored carbon back into the atmosphere. In fact, forest loss is one of the biggest emissions sources on the planet. Stopping deforestation will reduce those emissions, and keep the carbon locked in existing forests out of the atmosphere.

But ending deforestation won’t draw more carbon out of the atmosphere. We need to create additional sequestration capacity, on top of what we have, to stabilize our climate.

What about other carbon capture technologies?

Direct-air carbon capture, bio-energy with carbon capture (BECCS), olivine weathering, and regenerative agriculture all offer promising carbon drawdown opportunities. But none of these technologies are as thoroughly tested, low-risk, or immediately scalable as reforestation.

Time is not on our side. Climate models show that to limit irreversible impacts of global warming, we’ll need to massively increase carbon drawdown this decade. That means we must employ every strategy we can, especially those that are immediately deployable, and scale them as quickly as possible, even as we develop new technologies.

Can’t we just find the fastest-growing trees and plant lots of those?

In theory, yes. But while plantations of fast-growing trees can grow and sequester carbon rapidly in the short-term, in the long-term, they provide less efficient and resilient carbon sinks than multi-species native forests. Hard-won lessons over the past few decades have taught us that monoculture plantations, especially of non-native species, don't result in long-term, sustainable carbon sinks.

Native tropical and subtropical forests can hold 42x more carbon per hectare than plantation forests. They’re also more resilient against pests, disease, and extreme weather conditions than single-species tree plantations. This means that the carbon they sequester is more secure. Native species forests also support two to three times as much biodiversity as plantation stands.

Despite the huge benefits of native species forests, nearly half of current global tropical and subtropical forest restoration commitments are for single-species commercial tree plantations. For a resilient climate solution, we need to shift the mix of restoration projects towards native species forests.

Aren’t trees too slow?

It will take about 30 years to plant the forests we need and give them time to sequester billions of tons of CO2 as they grow. Though 30 years may sound like a long time frame, it’s much shorter than the time it would take to bring any other carbon capture solution to scale.

Forests are already a proven carbon capture solution. No other proposed carbon capture technology is ready to deploy at scale today.  Many of the proposed technological solutions appear to offer quick fixes, but none are yet commercially mature. This process can decades; once mature, technological solutions will face the same massive scaling challenges that face restoration. In contrast, restoration is already commercially mature, and faces only the remaining scaling challenges. For an extended discussion of this technology-deployment timeline issue, see this blog post.

Is there research on the climate benefits of reforestation?

Lots! Researchers around the globe continue to refine estimates of the climate and ecosystem benefits of large-scale reforestation. Some of the most compelling recent studies address natural forest regeneration, the potential of global tree restoration, the carbon accumulation potential of natural forests, and priority areas for ecosystem restoration.

Check out some of the most recent studies:‍

2017

  • Natural climate solutions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. October 2017. (here) ‍

2019

  • Regenerate natural forests to store carbon. Science.  April 2019. (here)
  • The global tree restoration potential. Science. July 2019. (here)

2020

  • Carbonshot report. World Resources Institute. January 2020. (here)
  • A “global safety net” to reverse biodiversity loss and stabilize Earth’s climate. Science Advances. September 2020. (here)
  • Mapping carbon accumulation potential from global natural forest regrowth. Nature. September 2020. (here)
  • The global forest watch map. The Nature Conservancy and World Resources Institute. September 2020. (here)
  • Global priority areas for ecosystem restoration. Nature. October 2020. (here)

Don’t most reforestation projects fail?

Most trees in reforestation projects die before they reach maturity. How will you avoid this?

Many projects focus on planting fast-growing, single-species tree plantations. While these projects offer some short-term economic opportunities, they suffer from high failure rates and a lack of ecological stability. 

The early growing years are the most critical for a restoration project. In highly degraded landscapes, the overstory that protects young saplings doesn’t exist. This leaves them particularly vulnerable to drought, invasive species, disease, pests, overgrazing, and wildfire. Yet once established, structurally complex native ecosystems are far more resilient than plantations to weather and environmental variations sure to occur over decades of growth. 

We provide partners with the tools, training, and financing to properly establish and support native-species projects through the critical early years and beyond. In particular, solar-powered desalination, combined with a focus on native species adapted to a specific location, makes it possible for plants to survive the early critical years and reestablish a self-sustaining ecosystem.

If it’s so simple, why hasn’t someone done it yet?

Planting a tree sounds easy. But restoring an ecosystem is not. It requires specific ecological knowledge, the right tools, early-stage financial support, and long-term management. 

Finding native seeds poses the first huge challenge. Centuries of unsustainable land use have rendered many native species extremely rare. That means restorationists have to collect seeds from the wild, often from difficult-to-access locations, and then store them in stable, climate-controlled conditions to keep them viable. Forest creators must carefully tend and monitor the saplings for years, guard against invasive species and pests, and protect the trees from premature harvesting. 

Moreover, the ability to irrigate otherwise inhospitable and arid areas was not possible until 2018, when solar prices reached a critical threshold that made 100% solar-powered desalination possible. This unlocked the final piece of the puzzle, enabling restoration of potentially billions of additional land acres that had once supported forests, but whether through disaster, drought, or human intervention, degraded to a point that forests could not naturally regenerate. We can now reverse this degradation through active restoration, supported by supplemental freshwater in the critical early establishment years.

It’s not simple, but it is possible. Terraformation provides detailed and location-specific training, tools, and resources to overcome each of these challenges, helping partners establish  ecosystems that will thrive for generations.

Won’t forests regrow themselves?

Given enough time, and left undisturbed, many ecosystems can naturally regenerate. But natural regeneration can be slow, or nearly impossible, in arid regions and highly degraded landscapes, where few native seed sources remain, and invasive species can outcompete slow-growing native plants.

Actively reestablishing native species with the support of irrigation, native plant propagation, and pest protection during vulnerable early-growth stages multiplies the likelihood of success and accelerates the recovery of native forests.

Does planting trees change land albedo?

In certain areas, planting new forests changes the albedo of the land such that the increased heat absorbed by the darker land cover offsets the cooling effects of the CO2 sequestered by the new forests. The best research suggests that this is most common in boreal (northern) regions, such as land in Canada and Russia.

For this reason, Terraformation focuses on restoring land in temperate and tropical regions. There are still several billion acres available for restoration outside of boreal zones.

Where will you get water for all those trees?

Don’t we have freshwater shortages?

Yes, and freshwater shortages pose enormous challenges to large-scale forest restoration, particularly in dry regions. Planting swaths of new trees in water-constrained regions can overdraw existing supplies on which local communities depend.

Reverse osmosis (RO) can purify nearby brackish or saltwater sources to provide supplemental water, solving the water shortage and accelerating ecosystem restoration. While previously considered too energy-intensive to be economical, rapidly declining solar prices now make it possible to do this on a very large scale in many parts of the world.

This is exactly what we are doing at our pilot restoration site on Hawaiʻi Island. Weʻre running the worldʻs largest off-grid, 100% solar-powered desalination system, and using it to accelerate restoration of a Hawaiian dry tropical forest ecosystem. You can read more about how solar-powered desalination is making this restoration possible in this article

Isn’t reverse osmosis, or desalination, expensive and energy-intensive?

Until recently, reverse osmosis (RO) was quite expensive, and most systems were coal- or gas-powered, which would have negated most or all of the carbon benefit of the new forests they irrigated. However, in 2018, something really important happened: the cost of solar power dropped below that of coal and gas. This unlocked an opportunity to sustain reforestation projects in areas with freshwater shortages via solar-powered desalination.

Desalination is ideally suited to intermittent renewable power sources like solar and wind. With most residential or commercial projects, users need power around the clock, necessitating expensive batteries to store the generated power. But with desalination, we can simply desalinate water when power is available and store it in inexpensive tanks for irrigation around dusk or whenever appropriate. This enables us to leapfrog the solar energy transition for desalination years ahead of residential or commercial applications.

Doesn’t desalination dump toxic effluent?

Reverse osmosis filters two gallons of seawater to produce one gallon of freshwater and one gallon of double-salty effluent. Desalinating seawater to irrigate plants produces this effluent, but it contains none of the purifying chemicals required to produce potable water for human consumption. It has only the stuff that was in the water in the first place. Still, dumping the higher salinity water just off the shoreline can be harmful to near-shore marine life. 

Working with brackish water, rather than ocean water, requires less energy and reduces the salinity of the effluent. Instead of sourcing water directly from the ocean, we can drill a shallow well a few hundred feet from the ocean to reach brackish water—sort of like digging a hole in the sand at the beach until you reach water. At our pilot site, the brackish water is about 25% the salinity of seawater and the effluent only 50%. 

There are currently two standard ways to safely dispose of this effluent. In some cases, it can irrigate additional forest acres of salt-tolerant species; this is what we do at our pilot site in Hawaiʻi, but it's not a solution that will work everywhere as it’s highly species dependent. The more scalable option is to build a long pipe and dump the effluent in deeper water, away from the shore, where marine life is much sparser. Studies from Israel's Ministry of Environment showed that minimal ecological damage from this disposal method

Desalination is becoming increasingly efficient and could resolve this problem in the near future. Some desalination systems can already reach levels of efficiency that consolidate the salts into a solid “puck” for safe disposal (or even commercial use), but this technology is not yet scalable. 

Will we have to provide the new forests with water forever?

We won't! The supplemental irrigation is like a kick starter to help ecosystems reestablish. Under normal conditions, young saplings benefit from the protective cover and deep roots of larger, established trees. The roots of mature trees bring up moisture from deep soil layers to hydrate young sapling roots, and their canopy lowers the forest temperature, reducing evaporation. In highly degraded landscapes, those symbiotic relationships don’t exist, and the new forests need support as they develop.

Once established, forests become largely self-sustaining and cycle their own water. In fact, forests drive the global water cycle and have enormous influence on rainfall patterns across the planet. Recent research shows that the massive deforestation of the last two centuries has dramatically altered rainfall patterns across the globe.

What’s your business model?

How do you make money?

We sell five services, each designed to solve a key bottleneck to forest restoration. These services include: 

  1. Financing: We connect partners with sources of financing to cover project startup costs.
  2. Technology: We sell a suite of tools that scale restoration projects. These include solar-powered modular seed banks to establish local native seed supplies, nursery build kits to optimize project efficiency, and design support using industry-leading solar-powered desalination technology to reduce water constraints. We are also developing a series of free, open-source software applications designed to help partners track progress and align workflows from seed collection through forest maintenance. 
  3. Project planning: We plan site-specific and ecologically appropriate projects based on soil analysis, botanical surveys, and other microclimate and local market data.
  4. Training: We train teams in seed collection, nursery management, horticulture, and forestry to improve workflow efficiency.
  5. Business consulting: We help partners plan and establish sustainable forest product businesses based on revenue from carbon credits, agroforestry, silvopasture, and ecological silviculture.
Who do you partner with?

We work with public- and private-sector landowners, including family offices, nonprofit organizations, cooperative landowners, land trusts, corporations, and governments.

What about indigenous and local communities?

Community land tenure promotes forest conservation and reduces both clearing and disturbance. Many indigenous cultures have deep knowledge of the unique ecology of their lands, developed over generations, and advanced techniques for managing it sustainably. With respect for this wisdom, Terraformation aims to support these communities and not interfere with their stewardship of their land. 

How do partners benefit?

Partners see tangible environmental and economic benefits from restoring their degraded land. As their stands grow, partners may generate revenue from carbon credit sales, increased agricultural productivity, reduced water-treatment costs, and sustainable harvest of timber and other forest products. The regenerated forests also provide a host of indirect economic benefits in the form of cleaner air and water, flood control, improved property values, and many other ecosystem services. In areas where Terraformation assists in deploying solar power and desalination capability, these systems are likely to produce excess power or freshwater, both of which can supplement local utility services.