On the VERGE

Ex-Google X engineer Tom Chi on tech that's 'net-positive' to nature

Tom Chi, VERGE 19, Google X, regenerative technology
Tom Chi was on the founding team of Google X and is a mastermind at rapidly prototyping world-changing innovations.

This article is adapted from the VERGE newsletter, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here.

"There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little and builds itself. (And no, it’s not the next generation of self-assembling direct air capture technology.) It’s called a tree."

This serious yet playful opening to Greta Thunberg’s newest video — a collaboration with British journalist and activist George Monbiot and funded by Conservation International — sets the stage for an important message that Thunberg and others are amplifying increasingly: the importance of natural climate solutions.

Thunberg's call to action? Protect, restore and fund. That is, where nature is doing something vital, protect it; since the nature of nature is to regenerate, do what we can to help ecosystems bounce back; and, of course, not only stop funding things that destroy nature, but pay for things that help it.

Deceptively simple, I know. And yet, while our understanding of the power of nature-based solutions to help mitigate and adapt to climate change is nothing new, putting them in the spotlight is as timely as ever. After all, recent research suggests that living ecosystems — think forests, mangroves, swamps and coral reefs — can sequester enormous quantities of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Protecting these natural systems could provide more than a third of the emissions reductions needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, not to mention increase the resilience of people, communities and ecosystems in the face of a changing climate.

And yet natural climate solutions continue to receive about 2 percent of the funding invested in climate change mitigation globally, while the world continues to spend 1,000 times that on fossil fuel subsidies. We’re destroying nature faster than ever, at the time we need it most.

That’s why I’m excited that Tom Chi will be keynoting at VERGE 19 in less than three weeks, on the topic of making ecological regeneration an imperative for tech. Tom was on the founding team of Google X and is a mastermind at rapidly prototyping world-changing innovations. He’s also one of the smartest people I know when it comes to investing in technologies that regenerate ecosystems at scale.

I had a chance to reconnect with Tom recently. Here’s a snapshot of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Shana Rappaport: Ecological regeneration on massive scales seems to be a primary focus of your work these days. Talk a bit about why that is.

Tom Chi: I started with the question: How do we really address the large-scale issues related to climate? Having a background in physics and electrical engineering, my first hope was that we could just go and make some kind of machine — one that sucks carbon out of the air and cleans water, that kind of thing. But, as I looked into it more, it turned out that the best machines I could find were actually trees and soils, and the processes that happen in oceans and wetlands.

Consider how carbon is being successfully sequestered from the atmosphere already: We've emitted more than 2 trillion tons of CO2 since the Industrial Revolution. Nature has already absorbed 1.2 trillion of those tons, leaving about 1 trillion in the atmosphere. If nature is already working at the scale that we need, then you get a lot more mileage out of helping nature do more of what it’s doing right already than you do by trying to invent a new machine that aims for a million or a billion tons.

Rappaport: You talk often about the idea of humanity leveraging technology to become a "net-positive to nature." What are some examples of this principle in practice?

Chi: At the end of the day, the economy is a subset of the biosphere. Just look around you right now — everything you see was either grown or mined. That's nature. If you start to understand the economy as a subset of the ecological world, then you start to understand the importance of investing in it.

What that looks like is ensuring that every single year humanity is on the planet, nature is healthier because we're here. That includes four simple attributes: air; water; soil; and biodiversity. If every year that humanity is around, nature gets healthier in those four attributes, then we will have a lot of prosperity to participate in.

On the flip side, consider the opposite: Let's say we’re 0.1 percent net-negative to nature on a yearly basis. In effect, you will have created a condition where there's a death date for civilization. Zero-point-one percent negative means you have 1,000 years before your civilization crashes. It wouldn't be the first time that a major civilization or society crashed because it pushed beyond ecological limits and didn't regenerate the natural systems on which their existence depends.

Rappaport: You're in the process of growing a fund to support these kinds of projects. You have about 20 companies in your portfolio and have moved millions already. What’s your big-picture vision for the fund?

Chi: I’m making investments in technologies that are net-positive to nature, and they’re doing really well. My thinking is that we need to be doing a lot more investing in large-scale ecological regeneration, and that we need to open up a vehicle so other investors can participate. There aren't enough people investing in this space, so the opportunities are actually really significant.

One of the companies I'm an investor in is called Iron Ox — they’re doing robotic agriculture from seed to harvest. They are very much focused on a type of agricultural automation that will be competitive with outdoor agriculture and make it so that we're able to grow our food in a healthy, super-reliable and extremely cost-effective way, while using much less area. 

In effect, Iron Ox is able to produce the equivalent of 30 acres of food using one acre of gross space — that’s a 30:1 compression of the area that's required to grow healthy food. I calculated that using this approach, you could continuously feed a city of 100,000 people all of their caloric needs by using just 2.5 square miles. Another major reason to invest in this is that the main driver of ecosystem destruction is food production.

What I’m interested in is changing the economics around agriculture — making it way cheaper and way more effective to do it in much less area, and to move away from destroying the rainforest, or any other ecosystem, for that matter, in order to grow food.

So yes, I invest in things that are directly leading to ecological restoration, but also those that allow us to pull the floor out from under the industries that are the main drivers of ecological destruction.

Speaking of moving from degeneration to regeneration, we'll be addressing this topic and so many more at VERGE 19 in just a few weeks. If you're not already registered, I urge you to do so here to join me, Tom Chi, and 3,000 other clean economy leaders committed to transforming ambition into action.