Why we need Silicon Valley to combat climate change: Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong

28 04 2022 | 13:25Akiko Fujita

Yishan Wong made his name helping to scale Facebook (FB) and PayPal (PYPL) as a software engineer.

Now, the former Reddit CEO is applying the lessons of Silicon Valley to the world’s greatest challenge: climate change.

“If there's one thing I learned in Silicon Valley, [it’s that] when you want to solve very, very large problems, most of the complexity is actually in the scaling,” Wong told Yahoo Finance (video above). “Every solution that's been proposed for climate change has to be done at an enormous planetary scale.”

For Wong’s startup Terraformation, that scale amounts to 3 billion acres of reforestation. Founded in 2019, the “forest tech” firm aims to accelerate tree planting to capture harmful carbon emissions and successfully plant trees at a rate that is at least five times faster than the average restoration project.

The aim isn’t just to plant trees but to offer packaged solutions that can be applied rapidly across developed and developing countries. The firm describes its product as “restoration in a box” and estimates that its restoration goal can sequester between 7 and 13 billion tons of CO2 every year for several decades.

“Trees are simple, reliable, cheap, and well understood,” Wong said. “If your core solution is a complex technological thing, and you have to build 100,000 of them, you're going to run into a whole bunch of just little problems with small defects and bugs and unknowns. So what you actually want is you want your core solution to be very, very simple.”

While Wong offers an admittedly low-tech solution to the world’s climate crisis, he increasingly finds himself in familiar company as more tech companies put their money behind carbon capture projects. Earlier this month, payments platform Stripe, Meta, and Alphabet (GOOG) teamed up to launch Frontier, a funding vehicle that committed nearly $1 billion to accelerate carbon removal projects.

Wong has leaned on his own Silicon Valley network to raise funds for Terraformation. Last summer, the startup raised $30 million in a Series A funding round led by Sam and Max Altman at Apollo Projects. Additionally, it attracted nearly 100 angel investors, including Palantir (PLTR) Co-founder Joe Lonsdale.

Applying the 'scalability factor' to climate change

The efforts come amid dire warnings about the pace of global warming.

In a recent report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scientists warned the world faces a “now or never moment” to limit global temperatures to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and avoid catastrophic consequences. To do that, the panel estimates an average of 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere every year by 2050.

Wong said reforestation efforts have been slow to scale in part because of bottlenecks limiting the availability of fresh water, seeds, and land to plant the trees on a mass scale.

In 2019 Terraformation launched its first pilot project, Pacific Flight, on Hawaii’s Big Island to restore land that had been destroyed by decades of logging and cattle grazing.

The firm developed what it describes as the “world’s largest fully off-grid” solar-powered desalination system to provide young trees with enough water to survive arid conditions. Terraformation has also created seed banks that can fit inside shipping containers to restore native seeds for wide-scale planting projects.

So far, the firm has helped establish restoration nurseries at 12 locations globally and has developed community partnerships in countries including Ecuador, Ghana, and Ukraine. Each project is tailored locally to the region’s needs, Wong said.

“Many of these groups have been working on forest restoration for decades now and learned how to do it correctly. So the next step is actually adding the scalability factor,” Wong said. “How do you then do 10 times more every year? That by itself is like a unique practice that's really only known in Silicon Valley or maybe in some very large companies.”

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Financehttps://finance.yahoo.com/

(Photo: Terraformation)