From tech to trees: The ex-CEO turning his Silicon Valley skills to mass reforestation

Terraformation’s Yishan Wong tells Volta how he hopes his tree-planting initiative will help save the world from climate change

A whirlwind career as a Silicon Valley tech whizzkid-turned-CEO – finally combusting in a highly public row and resignation – might prompt many of us to opt for an early retirement.

But for according to the former Reddit CEO in question, Yishan Wong, it was merely the foundation for his major life’s work: tree-planting.

I’m giving this everything I’ve got, and I’m hoping that everyone else who joins us will too.

– Yishan Wong, Founder and CEO Terraformation

His new venture, Terraformation, has the ambitious goal of solving climate change with mass reforestation – in part deploying skills Mr Wong acquired during his time immersed in code and servers.

“I feel now that I have been preparing my entire life for this project.  

“It is taking everything I’ve ever learned – every skill, every bit of experience – and harnessing it in a new way,” he told Volta.

What is the back story?

Mr Wong enjoyed a meteoric career in Silicon Valley, helping establish PayPal from 2001, joining Facebook in 2005 and becoming CEO of the huge (and controversial) Reddit forum in 2011.

But it ended explosively with Mr Wong’s sudden resignation in 2014 after an internal row about the location of new premises. On his departure, Mr Wong said he was “completely worn out”, describing the job as “incredibly stressful and draining”, and damaging to his health and personal life.

Mr Wong retreated for some years, but then developed an interest in mass forest restoration as “the fastest, most effective and most immediately scalable answer to reversing climate change”, the “greatest challenge of our time”.

He also came to the conclusion that he could apply his tech skills to bringing the solution to life.

What does coding have to do with tree-planting?

“One of the unique skills you learn in Silicon Valley is how to scale a small working solution to something that is a billion times larger, very quickly,” Mr Wong says. 

“People often wonder why I made such a huge shift – isn’t tree planting totally different from writing code? It is, but reforestation shares three critical features with certain highly-scalable technologies that make it an ideal solution to climate change: simplicity, reliability, and the fact that it is very parallelizable.”

“The real unique contribution that Silicon Valley can make to climate change is not the invention of some magical new tech or fancy gadgets, but rather the organizational and project expertise on how to rapidly scale systems that already work.”

Why is reforestation so important in combatting climate change?

Reforestation is already widely acknowledged as “one of the most effective strategies for climate change mitigation”, a team of scientists concluded in an influential study published by Science magazine in 2019.

This is reflected in global initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge launched by the German government to restore 150 million hectares (1.5m sq km) of degraded and deforested landscapes by 2020 and a further 200 million by 2030. (It says it has so far received pledges to restore 210 million hectares.)

Earth could naturally support 4.4 billion hectares of forest (colors in map A; gray represents areas such as desert that have no potential). When existing forests, agricultural lands and urban areas are subtracted from potential forest lands, 0.9 billion hectares remain (colors in bottom map B) where new forests could grow, pulling 205 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Credit: “The Global Tree Restoration Potential.” Jean-Francois Bastin et al. in Science, Vol. 365, issue 6448, July 5, 2019

The Science study estimated that (under existing climate conditions) there was potential for “an extra 0.9 billion hectares of canopy cover, which could store 205 gigatonnes of carbon”, representing an increase of over 25% in global forested area.  

That would come close to the 1 billion hectares of additional forest which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says will be necessary to limit global warming to 1.5C by 2050.

However, the study highlights the need for urgent action, warning that on the current trajectory, canopy cover could instead shrink by around 223 million hectares.

What is different about Terraformation’s approach?

Mr Wong says that when he came across the Science paper, it confirmed “that some of my own (admittedly amateur) calculations were in the right ballpark.

“However, much of the research surrounding forest restoration as a climate solution focuses exclusively on areas that already get adequate rainfall to support forest. To make it a full-scale solution, I think we need to go bigger than this. We can also restore currently degraded land to its native ecosystem with a little kickstart from sustainable irrigation.”

Our business model combines these revenue streams and project finance to help partners establish profitable, standalone forestry businesses which support local jobs and economic opportunity while growing forests around the world and solving the climate crisis.

Yishan Wong, Founder and CEO Terraformation

The answer, says Mr Wong, is solar-powered desalination – a technology he says has only become economically feasible in the last four years, thanks to the plummeting cost of solar energy.

Using this technology, Terraformation estimates that the restoration of up to 1.2 billion hectares of degraded or desertified land should – in theory – be possible.

To show it works, Terraformation is trialling a project in a severely degraded, arid area of Hawai’i, which Mr Wong describes as “one of the most difficult places to regrow forest”.

Mr Wong self-funded what he says is the world’s largest off-grid, 100% solar-powered desalination facility on the western slopes of Kohala, a mountain on the northern tip of the island of Hawai’i.

It is producing 128,000 litres (34,000 gallons) of freshwater daily to support the restoration of over 18 hectares of native sandalwood forest.

“Some of the plants are about a year old now, and they’re showing really healthy growth. For us, the measure of success is when the plants begin to flower and drop their own seed – that’s when the ecosystem becomes fully self-sustaining.  If we can achieve that level of success in Hawaiʻi, we can do it everywhere else.

Is it supporting similar projects elsewhere?

It is early days for Terraformation, but it is already developing partnerships with organisations in Ecuador, Haiti, Tanzania and Uganda on projects covering over 8,000 hectares.

Partners pay for Terraformation’s equipment and expertise, but Mr Wong points out they will benefit not only from contributing to the effort to mitigate climate change, but from resulting income-generation opportunities.

“Landscape restoration generates new revenue streams, from carbon credits to agroforestry, sustainably harvested forest products, and even reduced water treatment costs.

“Our business model combines these revenue streams and project finance to help partners establish profitable, standalone forestry businesses which support local jobs and economic opportunity while growing forests around the world and solving the climate crisis.”

Terraformation says it has itself now raised “considerable” funding from over 30 angel investors to drive the project forward.

Won’t it be a challenge to get the project to scale quickly enough to make a difference?

That is the key question, Mr Wong says.

But he was encouraged by his time spent among the online communities of Reddit and Facebook, where he found “growing awareness of how serious the climate crisis is – and how little time we have left to save the planet”.

He acknowledges there is “less awareness [of] tree-planting specifically as a climate solution. That’s not surprising, as it’s been underfunded for decades”, but adds that he is determined to change this. “I’m giving this everything I’ve got, and I’m hoping that everyone else who joins us will too.”

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