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Forget carbon capture, Elon Musk: rewilding needs our attention

Rewilding and reforestation projects may not be as exciting or lucrative as disruptive new technologies, but they do make an impact – and they can get to work right now.

By Hana Sutch

January 20 was a big day: Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the US, the country rejoined the Paris Agreement and a $100m prize for the best carbon capture technology was announced… by Elon Musk. More details are to be revealed, but it immediately struck a chord.

Is it just me, or are US tech giants so obsessed with inventing new technologies they’re failing to see that solutions to carbon capture already exist?

I have a suggestion for Musk: how about putting that $100m (or even another $100m) towards rewilding and reforestation projects instead? 

The money would go a lot further — and we could get to work immediately. There’d be no need to spend cash on prototyping, iterating and developing new tech solutions. We wouldn’t need to use the sorts of precious metals and raw materials that carbon capture relies on, we could simply refine and roll out support for nature-based solutions that already exist, that also happen to be amazing at carbon capture. Trees, after all, have already mastered it.

Turn to ‘nature tech’

This is not crazy talk — there are already startups and organisations out there. In Europe alone, we have:

  • Rewilding Europe, which has supported more than 150 businesses through its investment arm and distributed more than €2m in loans
  • Ecologie, which has built membership models around reforestation and generated revenues over £970,000 in 2020, its first full year in business
  • Mossy Earth, another for-profit business that supports rewilding projects using a membership model, which it says is growing at a rate that puts it on pace to plant one million trees by 2022

These organisations would benefit hugely from more funding and attention.

Social-impact projects are likely not seen as glamorous, ownable or sexy enough

Most importantly, this would save time (which we don’t have) and mitigate risk of short-term failure from prototypes that don’t behave as expected at scale. 

For many tech billionaires, these kinds of community-based or social-impact projects are likely not seen as glamorous, ownable or sexy enough. They can be harder to quantify and the financial returns harder to measure (although they do create jobs and can help boost incomes in the agriculture and travel sectors).

And if we don’t find ways to support these projects? Let’s see what the history books might say:

  • Did we preserve peatlands? Nope.
  • Did we reforest and immediately halt deforestation? Nah.
  • Did we restore the wetlands? No.
  • Did we rewild cities? We didn’t.
  • How about protecting coastal and marine ecosystems? Erm, no. 
  • Did we spend millions chasing cleantech unicorns, that may or may not have worked out? Right now, that one’s a yes.

This is not the story we want to be telling our grandchildren. Because here’s how it ends: disaster on a catastrophic scale. 

Rewilding is the way to go

It doesn’t have to be this way. The evidence is clear: rewilding can help halt extinctions and absorb enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. It also makes the planet a better place to live, with research showing that forming a new relationship with the natural world is good for humans. It can help us to feel good about ourselves and restore our mental health.

Forget glamorous prize funds and disruptive, high-tech solutions 

Across our cities, our daily contact with nature continues to diminish as a result of rapid urbanisation, resource exploitation and a growing desire for convenience over experience. These changes do not come without a human cost, with recent studies pointing to a series of related negative effects on mental health, environmental awareness and social connection. 

Nature helps to heal us. It brings us joy and helps sustain us. In turn, we should have compassion for it and do everything we can to help restore the natural world. 

We have a choice. Right here, right now. As we — and Musk — look to the moon, Mars and the stars for answers, space exploration might look like a utopian (read: dystopian) future, but we mustn’t forget we are living in paradise right here. If only we’d open our eyes and put our money where our mouth is. 

The clock is ticking. Forget glamorous prize funds and disruptive, high-tech solutions. This is an emergency. Don’t put off till tomorrow what can be done today. Nature tech for the win.

Hana Sutch is the cofounder and CEO of Go Jauntly, a health and wellness company which has created a walking, wayfinding and nature connection app. 

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Iain Climie
Iain Climie

Good points but don’t overlook the possibility of combining such measures (or conservation in the first place). Knepp in Sussex is one example, cleaning up and restocking the world’s oceans could be a lifesaver (although limiting fishing and regarding them more as a backup mright be sensible), the great Harvard biologist E.O.Wilson’s “The Diversity of Life ” shows how rainforests could be carefully used in situ, silviculture has merit and Native Americans used bison on the plains sensibly before pseudo-civilisation arrived, wrecking land, using smallpox (!), nearly wiping out bison and actually destroying the US passenger pigeon, then later creating… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa

Really good points. It feels like the techno fix is still part of the grand mastery project. And I think the deeper, more sustainable solutions come from changing mindsets. I do sometimes worry that replanting projects can be a bit thinly understood though. Often rewilding needs open grass plains as well. And there’s a significant difference between monocropping rows of the same tree and hashing a healthy forest ecosystem. But the two, when done well, can go hand in hand. And totally agree…nature has been experimenting with the best, must efficient and effective ways to do something for billions of… Read more »

Monica dodi
Monica dodi

Check out lordofthetrees.org
We use drones to replant forests emulating nature’s biodiversity with higher yield at lower costs than traditional methods.

Patrick
Patrick

I feel the main reason he wants to weigh in on creation of carbon capture is due to both climate change and the idea of miniturising it for other things as well. eg. Tesla car applications as well as a viable co2 scrubber for a trip to mars whilst reducing the launch weight of his rockets. As the application of a co2 scrubber that is efficient enough to pull carbon from the air could even help with his tunnel system. I’m sure there are a multitude of other uses

Simon
Simon

Well put Hana.
As I read the other comments, yes there are important things to consider. However we need to be positive and make it work because the other option is disaster. We are very intelligent ( you wouldn’t think so to an on looking cosmic visitor) and we have the power to make it work. So let’s come together and get on with it.

Aaron
Aaron

Rewilding is definitely part of the solution however in some instances I fear we may be too late. Take Australia for instance, in the tropics an already established rainforest was obliterated by a climate exacerbated tropical cyclone, many trees were torn down and many endangered animals fled such as the cassowary. Infamously in the east of the country climate bush fires ravaged much of its forest’s destroying an estimated 3 billion animals! I’ll let that number sink in. Only this year half of Fraser Island burnt to the ground because two men lit a camp fire. My point is we… Read more »