Reforestation realities with Jim Mann of Future Forest

This week’s perspective on climate solutions comes from across the pond. We spoke with Jim Mann, Co-founder and CEO of The Future Forest Company, a UK based carbon removal business focused on fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity. Future Forest takes a multi-pronged approach to CO2 sequestration at mega scale and their goals are as big as Earth itself.

What does The Future Forest Company do?

When we first started the company, we were looking to reforest land in order to help with biodiversity and carbon capture. But the further we got into that, the more we realized that alone wasn't going to tackle climate change. So we started looking at alternative solutions that could be co-deployed with what we were doing. We settled on biochar and enhanced rock weathering and started to develop those alongside reforestation. There are holistic benefits to employing the three processes together, and individual benefits of each one.

What brought you to founding this company?

It was probably the best part of 20 years in the making. To go way back, I got my degree in ecology so I was aware of climate change quite early on. And I figured it was probably a government problem — you need big forces to fix a problem with that sort of scale.

I started my first company to pay my way through university and I've been in technology startups since then. About five years ago, having watched the climate problem get worse, and having watched governments fail to act, I thought it was probably time I did something. I was fortunate enough to have a business that paid me a decent living without having to go to work. So I started putting all of my time and effort into figuring out models for reforestation and working out where I could fit into solving climate issues. I could say I should have done it sooner, but I built up skills along the way that have enabled us to grow quickly and innovate to make a really scalable business.

Can you tell us more about those three strategies that Future Forest is built on?

Our reforestation work has always been in Scotland or north of England. We chose those locations because you get a high degree of permanence. On the west coast of Scotland, it's wet and has a very low risk of forest fire. There is also a stable social, political, and economic system and a good rule of law, which eliminates many of the problems that you come across with reforestation projects around the world. The problem with reforestation if you want permanence is you need to own the land underneath it to really ensure longevity in my opinion. And that creates a number of restrictions — it's capital intensive and it's hard to scale.

So that’s where we get into our other solutions. Biochar is a charcoal-like product made by burning organic material in the absence of oxygen. That could be straw, or wood waste… anything that would otherwise break down and release carbon into the atmosphere. Instead, the product becomes a highly stable form of carbon. Our primary interest is locking up that carbon, but there is also a whole range of benefits that come from applying biochar to agricultural land. It increases drought resistance, helps with nutrient absorption, and boosts microbial and fungal life in the soil. We are looking for solutions that generate carbon credits and also benefit the soil in a profitable way effectively.

Enhanced rock weathering is another tool for carbon storage. Essentially we grind silicate rock into a powder and apply it onto land. Through a series of chemical reactions, the rock powder takes carbon from the atmosphere and locks it away for hundreds of thousands of years. It also releases minerals into the soil — calcium, magnesium, phosphates, potassium, and a range of micronutrients that crops need. This can reduce the fertilizer that farmers would need to apply. There's a lot of work going on to quantify that at the moment. But those benefits have been shown in field trials. So that’s why we like these solutions because they're both CO2 removing and creating other positive environmental benefits.

We generate carbon credits using these strategies that we sell to companies who want to offset their carbon emissions. Typically, we sell credits at a premium price because of the co-benefits. We can't monetize something like biodiversity specifically, but if creating habitat for wildlife, or making farmland more sustainable is important to you, you’d ideally be willing to pay for that part of the story.

What barriers have come up in building this as a business?

There are significant challenges in things like measuring and quantifying carbon removal through enhanced rock weathering and the biochar. It’s a young industry so there's a shortage of machines and machine manufacturers, and you're often having to create the playbook around these big machines and innovate the business model. That is always an exciting place to be, but it's also difficult because you're kind of making it up to as you go along. Fortunately, we have a very strong operational team now, which takes away a lot of those headaches.

What are your dreams for the future of Future Forest?

Our immediate focus is on getting to a million tons of carbon removal. That sounds like a big number, but it's nowhere near where we need to be. All the climate models that we’re seeing now suggest that we need to be removing about 10 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year. We are currently so many orders of magnitude out from what we need to be doing. So even getting to a million tons is nowhere near where we need to be. I'd like to think that one day we can get to a gigaton of carbon removal.

We think about how we can turn the models we have today into solutions that can get us to removing a billion tons of carbon because it's almost not worth doing if you can't get to a very significant level. That's why we've chosen the technologies that we're working with — we think they are the ones with most potential to scale and that can be scaled quickest. There is value in a whole range of different solutions that are removing carbon in the millions of tons because it all adds up. But we need really big solutions that can scale rapidly if we're going to get this under control, and we're short of those solutions at the moment.

How can we get involved and support Future Forest?

We're starting to launch carbon removal credits to offset individual emissions. And that's not to encourage people to go and burn more fossil fuels because they can just offset them — we want people to, you know, reduce and reuse and recycle before they start doing that. But if there are emissions people can't avoid, supporting projects that are focused on carbon removal will help scale those projects.

I feel like I've done a lot to live sustainably, we have an electric car and solar panels on the roof and things like that, but ultimately, I still have a carbon footprint. I'd like to think I can get to carbon neutral through the work that we're doing.

Thank you, Jim! It takes ambition like this for real change to come to fruition.