Diego Saez Gil co-founded climate technology startup Pachama in 2018 at a time when big corporations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere were looking for ways to offset their carbon emissions through forest conservation.
Saez Gil grew up near the Yungas forest region of northwest Argentina. His longtime interest in South America’s wilderness was rekindled on a visit to the Amazon, where he witnessed the scale of deforestation.
He spoke recently to The Associated Press about how the San Francisco-based company uses satellite imagery, drones and artificial intelligence to analyze forest canopies, with a mission to help verify that corporate-funded restoration projects are working as promised to sequester carbon and foster biodiversity.
Q: How do you make money?
A: We act in the carbon markets. Projects can be created and obtain carbon credits if they lead to additional carbon sequestration in the future. Pachama acts as an intermediate platform that helps projects get started with all that’s needed to obtain carbon credits. We use satellite data, artificial intelligence and other sources to build the carbon accounting and the case for carbon credits on those projects. Then help issue those carbon credits and connect those projects with companies and investors around the world.
We make money by taking a fee on the transactions that we facilitate. We make sure that the vast majority of the funding actually goes to the communities and to the people who are on the ground doing conservation or restoration.
Q: Could you describe a specific project?
A: There is an incredible project (sponsored by e-commerce company MercadoLibre) we helped start in the Atlantic forest of Brazil. It’s reforesting corridors for wildlife, connecting patches of forest, allowing endangered species to go from one part to the other, which will help some of these endangered species rebound. This is an area that used to be fully covered forest and starting in the '70s it was heavily deforested by agriculture.
Now there's an intention by many local people and international players as well to help reforest that area, because it’s a critical ecosystem that has enormous biodiversity and plays a critical climate role. Over a million trees have been planted and the project will continue to expand.
Q: Who are your customers?
A: We work with a lot of Fortune 500 companies that generally have a comprehensive climate action plan. That starts with measuring their emissions, reducing their emissions as much as they can, and finally, they decide to invest in removing carbon by investing in projects that help them reduce the difficult-to-abate emissions.
Some of our customers include Shopify, Salesforce, Amazon, Airbnb, Netflix, Flexport. We’ve resonated with technology companies that understand the technologies we’re building. But clearly, the intention is that every company should take responsibility for their carbon footprint.
Q: What about concerns these credits are an excuse for polluters to keep polluting?
A: Some bad players in the past have taken on the bad practice of buying a few carbon offsets, putting an ad on social media of a few trees being planted, and using it as a way to hide the fact that they’re actually not doing anything about changing their business. I’m thinking oil and gas companies. We should avoid and expose greenwashing efforts.
That being said, I strongly believe that the transition away from fossil fuels is a multi-decade transition. We absolutely need all corporations to invest heavily now in projects that will remove carbon and avoid carbon emissions. We are focused on conserving tropical forests and reforesting native forests around the world. These are things that must be done today. If we wait two decades, it’s going to be too late.
Q: Who are your competitors?
A: There are some interesting organizations that we overlap with in the data side. We’ve been investing a lot on using satellite data and AI to analyze forest projects. There are companies such as Sylvera that’s been using data to evaluate and rate projects. NASA has been working a lot on determining carbon from space. Planet, the satellite company, is providing insights and analytics about nature from space.
On the project side, there is a company called Earthshot Labs that has a similar approach of starting new, high-quality nature projects. There’s a company called NCX that is also trying to come up with an innovative way to create forest projects. And then there are several companies that have had a role for a long time, such as South Pole and ClimatePartner.
Q: How do you distinguish Pachama?
A: What’s unique about us is that we have this very strong technological DNA. Our first focus was building an engineering and science team to crack the code of predicting carbon, deforestation and other metrics of a forest from satellite data and AI. We built a strong competency there. Then we combine that with presence on the ground and the development of projects. There are many companies that are very local or focused on specific geographies. We are trying to have a system that can work across the globe.
Q: How much are you planting native tree species?
A: Unfortunately, when you look at the legacy of carbon projects, probably the majority of projects were primarily monoculture timber plantation types. We must keep doing some timber wood plantations because wood is a very sustainable material that we need to continue building houses and furniture and things for people. I do think that for carbon projects we should aim to primarily focus on native reforestation.
So we have set an internal target of having projects only with an overwhelming majority of native species and avoid monoculture tree plantations. One of the issues with monoculture tree plantations that receive carbon credits is that if these trees are going to be cut down for wood in the future, then it’s debatable whether you need credits to incentivize these plantations in the first place.