Why I'm Joining Overstory

About a year ago I decided I wanted to devote myself full-time to our climate crisis. Making the commitment was the easy part. I have two young children and I want to be able to tell them I did everything I could to solve this problem. Figuring out exactly what that meant for someone with my professional background wasn’t quite so easy. So I started on a journey to learn as much as I could, meet a ton of people (about 150 at last count) and figure out where I should focus in order to have the biggest impact. It’s been a fascinating journey, and I am keenly aware of how privileged I am to have been able to pursue it.

Now I’m thrilled to share the next big step in my journey: I’m joining the climate-tech startup Overstory as Chief Product Officer. I feel so lucky to be joining a wonderful team of people working on a vitally important mission, with the potential to have a huge impact on our climate crisis.

Some more about the company: Overstory’s mission is to monitor all of Earth’s natural resources in real time in order to help protect those resources and mitigate climate change. They are doing this right now by applying machine learning to satellite imagery to track forests and vegetation. This helps utility companies reduce the risk of wildfires and power outages — problems that we’re so acutely aware of at this moment in time. 

Trees falling on power lines are a major cause of both wildfires and power outages, and these problems will only increase as extreme weather from climate change becomes the norm. Right now utility companies monitor this risk by having people on the ground walk under the power lines, or by using drones and helicopters to gather information about how close the trees are to the lines. All of that is time-consuming, expensive and not real-time. But satellite data changes all of that. 

The cost of launching satellites has gone down considerably, so there has been a rapid rise in both the number of satellites being launched and the diversity of sensors on them. So the quality of satellite data is increasing while the cost of accessing it is decreasing. As a result, the Overstory engineers in Amsterdam are able to access high-resolution data about a specific square foot of land in rural California multiple times a day. Using their algorithms, they can determine what trees are growing, how fast they are growing and even what pests are eating the trees. Incredibly cool, right?

Overstory’s technology to help avoid wildfires in areas that are now prone to them falls squarely in the realm of “climate adaptation,” an area of focus that is getting more attention both from policy makers and from engineers. Just last week Google announced that, using their machine learning algorithms, they can now send real-time flood warnings to 240 million people in India and Bangladesh. There is huge potential for machine-learning-based technologies to be used to protect lives that are now at risk because of rising temperatures. I think you’ll see more and more of this. 

By helping to reduce the risk of large wildfires, Overstory is already helping to mitigate climate change because wildfires emit CO₂. Scientists debate the exact amount but it’s clear that, among other obvious benefits, reducing high-intensity wildfires reduces emissions. And of course the fires also destroy trees — one of the most effective natural solutions for pulling  CO₂ out of the atmosphere. 

But that’s just the start. Overstory is also working with the Rainforest Alliance to help protect forests in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia and Peru, and they’re working on a project to promote more urban green spaces around the world. The goal is to perfect the technology and then expand it to other areas where it can have an even greater impact on reversing climate change.

If you work in tech and want to work on this vitally important mission, Overstory is hiring — and, specifically, I’m looking for a designer to work closely with me. My family and I will be moving to Amsterdam, so come join us! 

In my yearlong journey, It’s been amazing to see a growing number of people (especially in tech) who are devoting their careers to solving this problem. When I get settled, I plan to develop ways to help more people make the transition. In the meantime, reach out if you are considering a similar journey. We’re all in this together.

Embrace the Soil

Greetings from coastal North Carolina. My family has decamped from Brooklyn to be with my parents in a beautiful spot on the Intracoastal Waterway. We are fortunate to be able to escape from the city for a bit.

The topic I want to cover today is the impact — both positive and negative — that soil-related issues have on the environment and our climate crisis. With many people stuck at home and thinking more about gardening, protecting and nurturing your soil is one small way to do your part. Let’s explore how…

The synthetic fertilizers that get sprayed on lawns, golf courses and fields help increase crop yields and keep the grass lush, but they have serious effects on our waterways and on global warming. 

First, our waterways. When it rains, the fertilizer is swept into creeks, rivers and sounds, creating algae blooms and depleting the oxygen in the water. This can kill fish or make it unsafe to eat shellfish from these waters. As warmer temperatures cause heavier rains, this will become a bigger problem with more runoff and more disruption to marine life.

This issue hit home for me this week when we had a huge rain. My daughter and I had gone clamming the day before, and the clams were awaiting their fate in a basket in the water. After the rainstorm, the marsh where we had collected the clams was suddenly full of brown, murky water, and the NC Department of Marine Fisheries temporarily closed the waters for shellfish collection because of pollution levels. No more clams for dinner.

I was struck by the sadness and stress that I felt when the pollution hit so close to home. I could see the direct impact that my parents’ neighbors’ choices have on the water quality. The construction site up the road is not handling its runoff appropriately, and fertilizers from a nearby golf course almost certainly contribute to the pollution. In fact, in the last 10 years, every single inland creek on this stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway has been permanently closed to shellfish collection because of pollution caused by residential and commercial runoff. (See red areas below)

Synthetic fertilizers clearly affect water quality, but that’s not all. They contribute to global warming because soil bacteria converts excess nitrate fertilizers into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its warming effect. According to a McKinsey report, agriculture accounts for 80% of global nitrous oxide emissions. The problem is compounded by the over-application of fertilizer. That same McKinsey report estimates that $13 billion is wasted every year on excess fertilizer. $13 billion?!

These fertilizers, which became popular after World War II, have been a boon to agriculture and have helped feed the earth’s population. But they’ve clearly come at a cost. 


How can large-scale improvements happen?

We have a long way to go in changing the ways of big agriculture, but a new way of doing things — known as regenerative agriculture — is gaining momentum. Not only does it reduce emissions, but it can also actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. This approach revolves around restoring the carbon content in the soil. You do that by not tilling the soil, planting cover crops, not adding synthetic fertilizers and rotating crops multiple times. The result: soil carbon levels rise.

Project Drawdown says: “It is estimated that at least 50 percent of the carbon in the earth’s soils has been released into the atmosphere over the past centuries. Bringing that carbon back home through regenerative agriculture is one of the greatest opportunities to address human and climate health, along with the financial well-being of farmers.”

I’m excited by some new organizations that are getting the regenerative movement off the ground. Carbon180 and Kiss the Ground are two wonderful soil-obsessed non-profits. Nori is a cool startup that is building a marketplace for carbon removal, starting by paying farmers to adopt regenerative practices that sequester carbon in the soil. And Indigo Ag, an agriculture-technology startup that has raised $850M in venture capital funding, uses microbial technology to help farmers replace chemicals and synthetic fertilizers.


What can you do to have an impact?

The one thing I’d like you to take away here is to love and nurture the soil in any way you can. If you have a yard or a garden, don’t use synthetic fertilizers. Buy organic soil. And compost so that you can put nutrients back into your garden.

If you are considering planting a lawn, don’t do it. Lawns are biodiversity deserts and water hogs, and they contribute more emissions than they sequester. This CNN article lays out all the reasons why lawns are a weird, bad obsession. It says that American residential lawns take up 49,000 square miles, which is nearly equal to the entire country of Greece. Imagine all the carbon that could be sequestered in that amount of land!

If you already have a lawn, consider allowing wildflowers to seed themselves in it and help the bees by mowing infrequently. And if yards and gardens are not something you have access to, you can help the soil by buying organic food if you can afford it. While the emissions picture of organic farming is complicated, at least you know you’re not supporting the use of synthetic fertilizers.


Some interesting things I’ve read recently:

The Sickness in Our Food Supply, a scary breakdown of the way we produce and distribute food, by Michael Pollan. (NY Review of Books)

A great personal action guide for the environment by Dr. Jonathan Foley, the Executive Director of Project Drawdown. 

The Times is tracking the 100 environmental regulations that the Trump administration is reversing.

Thanks for reading, and please share your feedback. Also ask your friends to sign up.

Fiona

Protecting Our Lungs

Hi, everyone. It’s been a while because I got busy with some projects, but I’m back. Perhaps this newsletter can provide you with a break from stocking up on toilet paper? 

I want to tackle a topic that a lot of people are thinking about right now because of the coronavirus — the health of our lungs. As we face this crazy, scary moment, I keep thinking about how well my family’s lungs will fight off the infection if we get it. One big reason I prioritize the lungs is that my three-year-old son has asthma. In caring for him, I’ve gained a new appreciation for just how fragile (and important!) those lungs are.

So today I want to talk about air pollution, and how we can’t take it for granted that the air we breathe is clean and not harmful to our health. You might be asking, what does air pollution have to do with our climate crisis? The two are closely linked. If we improve the former, we help the latter. 

Some background on the problem, sourced from a super-informative graphic in The New York Times:

What exactly is air pollution? It’s caused by particulates and gases released into the air. One important particulate is PM2.5. It’s called that because the particles are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-thirtieth the size of a human hair. PM2.5 is released into the air when we burn things, such as coal, gasoline, chemicals or woody material (especially during wildfires).

The damage caused by PM2.5 is serious. The particles penetrate the lungs, and sometimes the bloodstream, causing or increasing the chances of asthma, cancer, heart disease, stroke, developmental problems in children, premature labor and miscarriage. In 2015, PM2.5 caused 4.2 million deaths worldwide and 81,000 in the US

In wealthy countries, it’s easy to take for granted that the air we breathe is clean. Poor people and people of color around the world bear the brunt of air pollution, and the air in the US is certainly much cleaner and less harmful than it is in many countries

But the trajectory in the US is heading in the wrong direction. Air pollution has increased since 2016, reversing years of decline. The main sources of the increase appear to be more people driving, the burning of natural gas and, in some areas, the prevalence of wildfires. 


How can large-scale improvements happen?

Public policy is critical. The Clean Air Act of 1970, for example, is estimated to have saved 184,000 lives each each year from 1970 to 1990, and $22.2 trillion in health care costs. After major smog problems in the 1960s and ’70s, California became a clear leader in enacting legislation to limit air pollution. Lives were saved. If the Trump administration is successful at rolling back environmental protections and keeping California from passing stringent emission standards, then lives will be lost. It’s that simple. 

Congestion pricing in London, Stockholm and Singapore has had a measurable impact on reducing air pollution. London has seen a 12% reduction in emissions and New York is set to be the first US city to roll out congestion pricing next year. 

I recently learned about a great public awareness campaign called “Help Delhi Breathe” in one of the most polluted cities on the planet. The campaign by the team at Purpose Climate Lab took on the challenge of harnessing residents’ raw energy to provoke action by the Indian government. People were angry about the health problems caused by pollution but they didn’t connect them with policy solutions that would address the root cause. The campaign helped connect the basic right to breathe with the need for governmental action.


What can you do to have an impact?

We’re facing a climate crisis because, as a society, we have not considered the cost of releasing greenhouse gases into the air. The same is true for polluting our air. The biggest way to change that is through legislation, so you should support any bills that promote clean air, and hold elected officials accountable. Don’t be silent. 

On a day-to-day basis, one easy thing to be aware of is idling cars and trucks. The pulmonologist of a friend’s child who suffers from extreme asthma said that the location of their apartment near an expressway and a street with lots of idling trucks undoubtedly makes it harder for him to breathe. So this isn’t a theoretical problem.

New York City just launched a great campaign with Billy Idol called #BillyNeverIdles. The campaign aims to raise awareness about pollution from idling cars and trucks. It also encourages citizens to report idling commercial vehicles. Much to the chagrin of my 7-year-old, I’ve become a citizen policewoman, asking drivers to stop idling and taking a video of them if they idle for more than 3 minutes (1 minute near a school), so I can report them.

Another potentially more difficult lifestyle switch is to consider ordering fewer things online. In New York City, 1.5 million packages are delivered daily, which causes pollution and gridlock, and fuels a pedestrian safety crisis. The demand for same-day delivery, especially for perishable goods, has played a big role in increasing the number of trucks on the road. So, once this pandemic has passed, one thing you can do is to reconsider whether you really need to order your groceries online.


Other interesting things I’ve read recently:

Mandatory composting could happen in New York. Food absolutely shouldn’t be thrown in a landfill. It doesn’t compost there. Instead it emits methane, which is bad.  (NYT)

A study found that tropical forests are losing their ability to absorb carbon. (Guardian)

How Big Oil and Big Soda teamed up to give us unrecyclable plastic, an environmental disaster. (Rolling Stone)

Thanks for reading, and please share your feedback. Also ask your friends to sign up.

Fiona

(Image credit: Ian MacNicol / Friends of the Earth Scotland)

Microsoft’s Moonshot

Happy new year, everyone. 

Last week, Microsoft made a hugely significant announcement that I urge you to read, and read all the way to the end. 

Why would this former journalist say that the most important thing you can do this week is to read a wordy corporate press release and talk about it with people you know?

Three reasons:

  1. Microsoft makes a uniquely bold pledge relating to carbon removal.

  2. The company lays out an incredibly detailed plan that could be a blueprint for others to follow.

  3. Microsoft is explicitly trying to spur action by others.


1) The carbon negative pledge

Here is the bold pledge:

“By 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative, and by 2050 Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.”

Many companies make sustainability pledges, but look for the ones who are focusing on being carbon negative, and not just carbon neutral. Pledging to remove all emissions (including indirect ones) going back to 1975 is a BIG DEAL. 

Why does that matter? If we did everything perfectly and stopped putting more carbon into the atmosphere tomorrow, we would still have a big problem on our hands because of what’s already in the atmosphere. That’s why decarbonization is key. There are nature-based solutions to carbon removal (plant more trees or change the way we farm, for example) and technology-based solutions. The latter are nascent and require more investment.


2) The detailed plan that is based on math

The carbon negative pledge is significant, but perhaps even more unique is the detailed nature of Microsoft’s plan to remove its carbon footprint. As far as I know, it is the most detailed carbon removal plan that any company has ever laid out. Other companies like Intuit, Stripe and, just this week, Starbucks, have also made inspiring commitments to be carbon negative. But none of these plans are as specific as Microsoft’s is.

Microsoft starts by explaining one critical aspect of carbon math — how to account for different categories, or scopes, of emissions. Below is an abbreviated version of its explanation, or you can watch a great video here:

  • Scope 1: Direct emissions that your activities create — like the trucks that transport your products. 

  • Scope 2: Indirect emissions that come from the production of the electricity or heat you use, like the traditional energy sources that power a building.

  • Scope 3: Indirect emissions that come from all activities you engage in. For a business, these emission sources can be extensive, and must be accounted for across its entire supply chain, the materials in its buildings, the business travel of its employees, and the full life cycle of its products, including the electricity consumed when using the product. 

Scope 3 emissions can be the hardest to measure and act on, so the fact that Microsoft is diving head first into them is meaningful. 

The company is using an internal carbon fee to tackle these emissions. The head of each business unit within Microsoft will have to pay a tax for scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. They say this isn’t just a “shadow fee” that is calculated but not charged. Real money is paid, and that money goes toward sustainability improvements. 

This model alters the math for the decision-makers by forcing them to pay for carbon instead of assuming it’s free. Not calculating the true cost of emissions across supply chains has distorted the true cost of everything in our society for decades, and it’s a big reason we are facing a climate crisis. Companies’ entire notion of accounting needs to change.


3) Urging others to act too 

One key part of Microsoft’s plan is its new Climate Innovation Fund, where it commits to investing $1 billion over the next four years into new carbon reduction and removal technologies. They say: “We understand that this is just a fraction of the investment needed, but our hope is that it spurs more governments and companies to invest in new ways as well.”

There is also some polite, yet direct, shaming of others who are patting themselves on the back but not doing enough. 

“While we at Microsoft have worked hard to be ‘carbon neutral’ since 2012, our recent work has led us to conclude that this is an area where we’re far better served by humility than pride. And we believe this is true not only for ourselves, but for every business and organization on the planet.”

The announcement closes with: “This is a bold bet — a moonshot — for Microsoft. And it will need to become a moonshot for the world.”

It’s fair to say, “OK, but any company can put out an inspiring press release and put on a good show. How do you KNOW it’s meaningful?” 

Healthy skepticism is always good. But there is something truly exciting here. The boldness of the targets. The detailed nature of the plan. The fact that the CEO, CFO and President were on stage for the announcement, and not just the Chief Environmental Officer. 

I think businesses are going to be hit from all sides with the need to decarbonize. It will be a hiring and retention problem, a finance problem, a how-you-operate-your-core-business problem, a how-you-innovate problem. It will also be a competitive problem, as consumers start to favor companies that are taking this issue seriously. 

The question is, when does this happen and how do businesses react? Having a giant company like Microsoft take this on now could help spur others to act sooner and more boldly. If you work at an organization that needs to change (most do!), talk about what Microsoft is doing with your colleagues. 

Let’s hope for more moonshots.


Other interesting things I’ve read or watched recently:

  • The Biggest Little Farm” is a great documentary about regenerative farming, a solution for removing carbon from the atmosphere.

  • Compostable take-out containers are not necessarily better than plastic ones. 

  • The News & Observer in Raleigh has published a series on the environmental impact of the wood pellet industry. Biomass is not clean energy. 

Please pass along your feedback on this week’s newsletter and ask your friends to sign up.  Has anything inspired you to make changes in your life? What future topics would you like to see broken down?

This Gift-Giving Season, Think Circular

Thanks to the holidays, this tends to be the “buy more stuff” time of year. And not just any stuff, but mainly new stuff. The production, packaging and shipping of that new stuff produces carbon emissions that are contributing to the climate crisis. And the new stuff turns to old stuff, a lot of which ends up in landfills.

Let’s take textiles as one example. According to the EPA, 17 million tons of textiles were produced in the US in 2017. That same year, 2.6 million tons were recycled and landfills received 11 million tons, which accounted for 8% of all the municipal solid waste that was sent to landfills. 

But what about used stuff? It turns out it’s kind of trendy right now. The great thing about resale is that you’re 1) diverting things from landfills and 2) not “spending” more emissions by creating something new.

Will buying second-hand things solve the climate crisis? Sadly, no. But not adding carbon emissions is better than adding them, so I believe that breaking our cycle of over-consumption IS one part of solving the problem. 


How can large-scale change happen?

If you’re not familiar with the term “circular economy,” then get comfy and read on because it’s super-cool. What I love about it is that it lays out a new normal where economic progress and protecting the environment can not just coexist, but thrive together.

The concept is pretty simple. The circular economy eliminates the idea of waste and says everything has value. Our existing system of consumption is linear, rather than circular, and it creates a massive disconnect between consumption and its consequences. The Macarthur Foundation has a good explainer if you want to dive in. 

There are investment firms that are funding startups focused on the circular economy, big consulting firms are pitching companies on why they need circular economy strategies, and Google published a manifesto earlier this year on how they will become a “Circular Google.” 

So is all of this investment and focus by companies actually changing anything? Are buying habits changing?

Signs are the answer is yes.

REI cemented themselves as a leader in the sustainability world with its successful #OptOutside campaign in 2015. It aimed to get people outside the day after Thanksgiving instead of chasing Black Friday deals. This year REI took another big step by announcing a major expansion of rentals and used gear

Peter Whitcomb, REI’s Director of New Business Development, told the Sierra Club, “We envision a model 10 to 20 years from now where the majority of transactions will be circular. It matches a consumer shift we’re seeing, particularly in younger generations—they’re seeking access over ownership.”

Other brands leading the way with “upcycled” clothing are Eileen Fisher, which has been taking back clothes for 10 years and has added a new, high-end “Resewn Collection,” where it makes entirely new pieces from old clothes that can’t be resold. And Patagonia has something similar. 

Interestingly, a single company called Yerdle — a “re-commerce” platform — powers the used goods sections of REI, Eileen Fisher and Patagonia.

ThredUp, a resale marketplace for all brands, has a great in-depth (but admittedly self-serving) look at the business of resale, and it predicts that the secondhand apparel market will reach $51 billion in 2023. Resale is finally reaching into the luxury market too. In fact, TheRealReal, a high-end online marketplace, now has a store on Madison Ave. 

The rental business is also expanding. Rent the Runway made it normal to wear used things, and IKEA is testing furniture rental in 30 countries.

All of this adds up to more than just empty marketing messages. It’s a real shift, and it seems to be driven by millennials and Gen Z, which gives me hope that real change can happen.


What can you do this week to have an impact?

I don’t recommend cancelling Christmas or Hanukkah because you’re trying to save the planet and humanity. Instead, my suggestion is that you do two things:

  1. Feel OK about giving less stuff. That could mean making donations in people’s honor, making them things, or buying them experiences (hopefully ones without a huge carbon footprint!) or classes instead of things.

  2. When you do buy something, look for a second-hand option. My daughter is getting a new bike, for example, and we decided to only look at used ones. Everyone knows about eBay, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, but here are some other places to look for used gifts:


Other interesting things I’ve read recently relating to the climate crisis:

Please pass along your feedback on this week’s newsletter and ask your friends to sign up.  Has anything inspired you to make changes in your daily routine? What future topics would you like to see broken down?

Thanks,

Fiona

Loading more posts…