Turning Trees Into Profit Without Cutting Them Down – Harry Grocott, CEO & Co-Founder At Treeconomy
This Earth Day, we are exploring the start-ups leading the charge in tackling some of the world’s most pressing climate challenges, and the founders behind them…
Here, we speak to Harry Grocott, alumnus of the MSc Climate Change, Management & Finance at Imperial College Business School and CEO & Co-Founder of Treeconomy – a venture which is unlocking the value of trees beyond timber, and enabling organisations to invest in forests, offsetting their carbon and keeping more trees in the ground.
What specific environmental problems is your company addressing, and how do you plan to make a difference in these areas?
Treeconomy removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it for long periods of time. We do this by restoring and regenerating natural ecosystems, such as tree planting & afforestation, rewilding, and peatland or mangrove restoration. We’re building a pipeline of projects to remove 1Gt of CO2e in the next decade – that’s 1 billion tonnes. It sounds large, but we emit more than 50Gt every year globally, so we have to think big in our industry!
We remove carbon from the atmosphere and support natural habitats, increasing biodiversity benefits on land that we support – and the biodiversity piece is really important myself & Rob, my co-founder. The Nature Funding Gap is ~$711bn per year, so by financing carbon-removing nature projects and ensuring they are biodiverse we can actually design a double win investment plan for the planet.
Our vision is to ensure Nature is an investible asset class. I want to be able to hold a nature asset in my pension, and profit from its restoration. That is the north star we are building towards.
What inspired you to start a company focused on environmental sustainability, and how did you get started?
I was originally a Geography student, so studying the science of climate change was something I had direct exposure to, and I was very fortunate to do a field study in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil where I had first-hand exposure to the damaging impacts of deforestation & degraded ecosystems.
I ended up working in finance, which opened me up to the fact that money – or capital – really isn’t the issue. There is plenty of money available, it is just not being put to work in areas that are needed, such as carbon dioxide removal. I knew that even if we succeed with scaling renewable energy and reducing global emissions, we still need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to limit warming.
I found this incredibly frustrating – it seemed obvious that there was a problem, and that the solution was also obvious; solar powered machines that grow themselves – trees. If we could pay for carbon removal then we could fund tree planting. I think it is true to say Treeconomy was really born out of frustration and anger as much as passion. I loved the idea and decided I really couldn’t work on anything else, and left my job to see whether I could bring this idea to life.
How did you experience at business school help you launched and run this company?
I left my job in finance to start Treeconomy, but I really didn’t know how to start a company, or how to succeed. I also knew that I needed time to really understand the complexities of land use, carbon credit markets, and different technologies that could be used to calculate carbon content.
Fortunately, I was accepted (on my second attempt!) into Imperial College Business School. The MSc Climate Change, Management and Finance course looked amazing on paper – everything I felt I wanted to learn academically, a large focus on business & finance, and modules on cleantech entrepreneurship.
Building a company to truly tackle a climate or environmental problems is both incredibly complex and carries enormous opportunity. To be able to do both takes a lot of knowledge and research. Joining the Business School granted me the time and space to deep dive into my areas of interest – my final report for the Master’s was on natural capital investment structures & opportunities, kind of a white piper on Treeconomy – but also to learn from academics at the front of their fields in science and business, a very rare collection of skills to find in one place.
What makes your company’s approach to environmental sustainability unique or different from other solutions out there?
Our difference starts with our approach and our intent. Treeconomy’s mission is to be the interface between the natural world and the digital world; we count trees in a forest, we tell you how big they are, we map changes in habitat sizes. To provide this level of detail we have to use very high-resolution data; 30-50cm resolution satellite imagery, and 2-10cm 3D data. We believe this level of detail and precision is necessary to get large pension investors comfortable with an investment thesis in nature.
Another difference is that we are very focussed on removing CO2 from the atmosphere, so we look at projects like tree planting or rewilding where we increase biomass. Many other companies are focussed on protecting and conserving tropical rainforests for example – a really valuable mission, but it means their technology has to do different things. So, the ecosystem types and the information we’re tracking is different, so our technology is different to other solutions.
And lastly, my Co-Founder Rob & I are impatient and driven by impact. We’re both in this because it’s a passion play. We’re not happy with just building software and services, we think change must happen faster. This means Treeconomy is also actively supporting and developing our own projects, or projects in partnership with local communities internationally. We have forests in Scotland being planted, we’re changing the way existing forests are managed in Canada, we’re enabling food forests in Ecuador, and we’re about to start a huge afforestation programme in central Africa. It’s our combination of software and real-world activity that makes us different.
What are some of the long-term goals you have for your company, and how do you plan to achieve them?
Our tag line is “Unlocking Nature’s Value”. Nature delivers services to people all the time – clean water, food, oxygen we breath, and carbon dioxide removal amongst many other services. But we don’t value these services very well, mainly because we don’t quantify them; there is value in logged timber but not as much in a standing forest. Our major goal is to pick off these services one by one and start to use advanced technology to quantify them, enabling better decisions about land use change that maximise total value to people and the environment.
Carbon dioxide removal is the first of these services we’re targeting. By better quantifying carbon removal volumes we have a goal to remove 1Gt of carbon dioxide in the next decade, that’s 1 billion tonnes. Its big and ambitious, but the exciting thing – and slightly sad thing – is that we have to think big because we emit more than 50Gt every year. It’s a huge problem, but a big opportunity for us too.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are interested in starting a company focused on environmental sustainability?
Be bold and do it – there is a huge problem, which means massive opportunity if you can actually build solutions that solve problems.
This touches every single sector, which means it can be an incredibly inclusive opportunity. If you have expertise in a certain area or niche you can turn that into an environmental sustainability-focussed start up or business service. The opportunity is enormous.
I would recommend building a network of enthusiasts and experts around you while you do it. It is very easy to get sucked into a short-term mindset, when we need to be thinking and planning long term for a problem like ours. There are definitely quick wins, but it’s often an interconnected problem. Having people like Dr Richard Templer to keep us focussed on the big picture has been really valuable, he’s supported us through the business school and into the start-up world.
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