Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019

Can blockchain catalyze carbon removal?

When online payments entrepreneur Stripe last week declared its intention to achieve “negative emissions” — by funding carbon removal projects, not just traditional offsets — I could practically hear Nori CEO Paul Gambill cheering from the blockchain startup’s Seattle headquarters.

What Stripe has pledged to do, starting immediately, is relatively unique. It wants to support projects that are explicitly focused on carbon sequestration — via technological or natural means — “at any price.”

The blog announcement by Christian Anderson, head of merchant intelligence at Stripe, acknowledges that the company will have to pay a far higher price per ton for those removal credits, probably more than $100 per metric tonne of carbon dioxide (tCO2) captured, versus the $8 per tCO2 it pays for offsets right now.

“We don’t expect to be able to sequester all of our carbon emissions, both because the relevant technologies are not yet operating at sufficient scale and because it would be financially infeasible for Stripe,” Anderson wrote. “And so we commit to spending at least twice on sequestration as we do on offsets, with a floor of at least $1 million per year.

Given that Stripe is looking for entrepreneurs to help with its quest, I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s already in discussions with Nori, which is creating what it's billing as the first carbon removal marketplace with blockchain as the transaction verification mechanism.

The startup, which first came to my attention last year, was recently selected for the Techstars’ Sustainability Accelerator run in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy (along with another company I’ve written about, bext360!).

Nori wants to make the process of buying carbon removal credits simpler, and more credible, for both buyers and sellers. That’s where blockchain comes in: The company is using it to measure information about the removal projects, where they are located and how they have been verified. It’s a disintermediation play — allowing buyers and sellers to trade more directly and (hopefully) eliminating some of the fraud concerns that have been recently raised about the existing carbon offset marketplace.

 “We’re solving the problem of double counting and bringing liquidity and price into the carbon market,” Gambill told me when chatted in early August.

Nori is currently working on a proof-of-concept demonstration transaction representing 10,000 metric tonnes, he said. To do so, it’s using information from one of the 15 farmers that are providing data to help the company build a database for quantifying how much carbon is sequestered via certain agricultural practices. (You can find Nori’s methodology here; it's a sharing kind of company.) Gambill hopes to launch the market in early 2020 (which is a bit later than anticipated), and its work in Techstars is focused on doing just that. 

While Nori hasn’t disclosed any early customers, the startup is in conversations with tech firms, transportation companies and (of course) food and agriculture businesses that might come in as buyers. “It’s not just because it’s good for carbon removal, it’s an investment in their supply chain so they can continue to grow food in 50 years,” Gambill told me. “Big food companies have been struggling with how to create something scalable to do this, so their suppliers can easily participate."

FWIW, Stripe is looking for three sorts of projects to satisfy its carbon removal missions: land management initiatives that improve natural carbon sinks, enhanced weathering efforts that mineralize CO2 in a gas or liquid, and direct-air capture (ala the work of companies like Climeworks, Carbon Engineering or Global Thermostat).

Given that my conversation with Gambill took place a week before Stripe’s new commitment was disclosed, it’s intriguing that he sees Nori’s long-term mission as akin to digital payments providers. “We’re not just trying to build a better offset market for corporations,” he said. “If we were doing that, it wouldn’t be that interesting to me, and I don’t think we would really be moving the needle on how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere. What we’re really trying to do is build something like Stripe for carbon removal payments.”

Tune into Episode 185 of the GreenBiz 350 (live on Friday, Aug. 23) for excerpts of my interview with Paul Gambill. And acquaint yourself with the VERGE Carbon conference debuting this year at VERGE 19, from Oct. 22 to 24 in Oakland, California. We’re featuring sessions on three themes: biological approaches (farms and forests), carbontech (fuels and materials innovation) and sequestration. Register here.

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Nori CEO Paul Gambill, on the mission of his Seattle-based blockchain startup