21 JUL 2021

When Tech Meets Nature: Leveraging Technology to Accelerate Nature-based Solutions

How can technology help accelerate nature-based solutions and climate action as a whole? Startups and industry experts weighed in on the issue as part of an Ecosperity Conversations webinar by Temasek.

Nature-based solutions can account for over a third of cost-effective climate mitigation needed to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels (Image credit: Kelly Lacy/Pexels)

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” While this age-old philosophical question has been debated for centuries, the answer is clear in the context of illegal logging. If that tree exists in one of the rainforests that non-profit tech startup Rainforest Connection is protecting, then the answer is a resounding yes.

The company is using “ears on the ground” — devices powered by solar panels that are installed in treetops — to protect rainforests in various areas from northern Brazil to Sumatra. These listening devices are part of a smart bio-acoustic monitoring system which aims to stop illegal logging in real time. The system leverages cloud technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to identify sounds, alerting local partners whenever a threat, such as the sound of a chainsaw, is detected.


Using Tech to Protect Nature

Rainforest Connection is just one of the innovative startups that form the first cohort of Sustaintech Xcelerator, a six-month virtual accelerator launched by DBS Bank, Google Cloud, National University of Singapore’s Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions (NUS-CNCS), Temasek, non-profit standard-setter Verra and the World Bank.

At a recent Ecosperity Conversations webinar by Temasek, the startups presented their technologies which focus on increasing investor and buyer confidence in nature-based solutions (NbS). NbS are climate mitigation solutions that use natural processes to reduce or remove greenhouse gases.

It is estimated that NbS can account for over a third of cost-effective climate mitigation needed to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Protecting and restoring our natural ecosystems not only helps the world achieve our climate goals, but also benefits biodiversity and increases the resilience of local communities.

Today, there is growing consensus on the need for more NbS. Yet such solutions are still underfunded, receiving less than 3% of global climate finance. Carbon credits, generated by projects that actively remove, reduce or avoid carbon emissions, could help. As more companies pledge to support climate action, the demand for carbon credits to complement their absolute carbon reduction plans could increase. In fact, it is estimated that the demand for high-quality voluntary carbon credits could jump 15-fold by 2030.

Cloud Agronomics uses remote sensing and AI to quantify carbon sequestration and sustainable outcomes in agriculture, unlocking agriculture’s potential to address climate change (Image credit: Cloud Agronomics)

To truly realise the opportunity of NbS, however, the current problems plaguing it must be addressed. There is still a lack of trust in NbS due to concerns in quantifying and monitoring these investments, as well as the high costs involved.

Could technology help enhance trust in NbS? The startups from Sustaintech Xcelerator, which aims to improve the monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of the impacts of NbS, believe so.

Much like Rainforest Connection, Treevia Forest Technologies is focusing on forest monitoring. The traditional manual method used to collect data and forest information has not changed over centuries, said Emily Shinzato, Co-founder and Director of People and Performance at Treevia. Treevia’s solution is simple: sensors attached on trees gather data, which are then translated into business insights through Treevia’s platform. This makes it a much more efficient, accessible and reliable way to assess the forests, explained Shinzato.

Meanwhile, startups Cloud Agronomics and FARM-TRACE are focusing on farmers to help address climate change.

By combining remote sensing such as hyperspectral imaging — a technique that uses a wide spectrum of light to capture the chemical “fingerprint” of objects — and AI, Cloud Agronomics quantifies soil carbon as well as the effects of regenerative agricultural practices. Farmers use these practices, such as planting different crops in rotation, to restore the amount of carbon stored in soil, which in turn promotes soil health. This not only strengthens verification and traceability but can also empower farmers to manage their land more sustainably. 

A mobile application by FARM-TRACE combines local data with satellite imagery and machine learning algorithm, to deliver verified reforestation impacts (Image credit: FARM-TRACE)

FARM-TRACE, on the other hand, is catalysing large-scale tropical reforestation by connecting small-scale farmers growing trees with brands seeking to reduce their climate footprints. Currently, farmers are often driven to cut down trees and adopt unsustainable agricultural practices due to short-term market incentives, noted Will Sheldon, Commercial Director of FARM-TRACE.

This harms not just the climate, but also the farmers. Such practices can lead to the degradation of land and water insecurity, making farmers even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. FARM-TRACE helps these farmers get rewarded for growing trees. They have developed an integrated platform that combines in-field mobile surveys with remote sensing data. The platform uses machine learning analytics to deliver trusted third-party forest and carbon assessments. This creates the trust needed for brands to invest in farmers growing trees and sequestering carbon, creating both a climate and livelihood solution for farmers across the tropics, says FARM-TRACE.

Lastly, carbon offset platform Sylvera is combining satellite imagery, radar and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data to enhance the transparency of carbon offsets from nature-based projects through a proprietary rating system. “Think of us as the Moody’s of carbon offsets,” said Samuel Gill, Co-founder and COO of Sylvera. Sylvera acts as an independent data verifier, using its platform to help customers assess, monitor and track the carbon performance of projects in real time.


Scaling Up with the Help of Partners

Such solutions are proof of technology’s key role in scaling NbS. The two areas in which technology can be particularly impactful are the use of AI and satellite imagery, said Jani Patokallio, Google Cloud’s Head of Solutions for Asia-Pacific. He added that technology can help replace labour-intensive practices, improving efficiency and reducing cost.

To build a better world, we need more responsible innovation, stressed Bidyut Dumra, Head of Innovation at DBS Bank. Innovators must be conscious of the environmental, social and governance (ESG) trade-offs and impact of their solutions, he added. The key is to recognise the problem, find the right balance and push to do more good.

That said, these emerging technologies will need help to scale. The panel of industry experts, most of whom are mentors in the Sustaintech Xcelerator, agreed that collaboration across the ecosystem will be needed to bring these technologies to market and reap the full benefits of NbS. 

Graphic summary of the discussions at the Ecosperity Conversations webinar

As mentors, DBS Bank, Google Cloud, NUS-CNCS, Temasek, Verra and the World Bank are also providing technical and commercial guidance to the startups, helping them accelerate their solutions for large-scale impact.   

With the goal of becoming a carbon services hub in Asia, Singapore is actively creating an enabling environment to advance the integrity of NbS and unlock its potential, said Adeline Aw, Vice President of Environmental Sustainability at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB). Aw explained that this is done through a multi-pronged approach, which involves building expertise in carbon services, and doubling down on scientific research to improve the environmental integrity and project credibility of NbS in the tropical context. Examples include research led by the NUS-CNCS, and the country’s marine climate change science research programme, which focuses on areas including blue carbon — the carbon stored in marine and coastal ecosystems. 

The consensus among the panellists was that carbon markets will undoubtedly help unlock the private capital needed to catalyse NbS, but more work must be done to address existing issues such as double counting and inadequate transparency. To that end, Singapore is working closely with the World Bank on initiatives like the Climate Warehouse, which aims to connect different carbon registry systems across the world via a meta-data platform powered by blockchain.

With the goal of becoming a carbon services hub in Asia, Singapore is actively creating an enabling environment to advance the integrity of and unlock the potential for NbS.
Adeline Aw, Vice President of Environmental Sustainability at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB)

Chandra Shekhar Sinha, Adviser of the Climate Change Group at the World Bank, emphasised the need for an end-to-end solution for greater credibility, traceability and robustness of global carbon offsets. He highlighted that the MRV solutions presented by the Sustaintech Xcelerator startups can increase trust and lower costs — but often only at the activity level. The Climate Warehouse initiative was thus developed to bridge the gap between these solutions and the global carbon market, providing a transparent view of market activity.

Applying these on-the-ground solutions to actual NbS projects that can generate carbon credits will also require standardisation — an area where the support of independent standard setters like Verra is needed. Verra develops global standards and frameworks for climate action and sustainable development. According to the organisation, its Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) Program is the most widely used voluntary greenhouse gas crediting programme in the world. It certifies a wide variety of NbS project types.

Acknowledging the benefits of new technologies, Candace Vinke, Verra’s Director of Nature-based Innovations, cautioned that rules for their use must be established to ensure standardisation. “Before we can implement these changes, we need to first understand the science and robustness of them,” she added. To achieve that, Verra is in discussions with academic groups to assess the technical, financial and practical feasibility of tech-powered MRV.

The panellists demonstrated that while technology has the potential to improve MRV processes in NbS, it will still require support from the ecosystem to truly accelerate NbS and climate action as a whole. And it is such collaboration, from public and private sectors to startups and non-profit organisations, that will give the world the best chance of fixing this climate emergency.

At Temasek, we strive to activate capital — financial, human, natural and social — to catalyse solutions for a better world, and deliver sustainable long term returns. One of the ways we do this is by enabling carbon negative solutions such as nature-based solutions. 

When Tech Meets Nature: Leveraging Technology to Accelerate Nature-based Solutions