Here, at the Center for Carbon Removal, we aim to highlight the entrepreneurs and projects in the carbon removal space. We sat down with Vesela Tanaskovic, Chief Scientific Officer of Afforest4Future, to discuss how her group is working to rebuild soils in desert regions. Read our conversation below!
Center for Carbon Removal: What is Afforest4Future, and where did you get this idea?
Vesela Tanaskovic: Afforest4Future is a startup from Vienna, Austria. We are a multinational team focused on planting trees to deliver positive environmental, economic, and social returns. Our first project is based in Egypt, where we are designing a system to transport nutrient rich buildup from lakes to desert soils to enable forests to thrive there sustainably. We hope our simple transportation system will restore the water storage for existing lakes, make new agricultural land, create jobs, educate people on agroforestry and conservation, sequester CO2, and prevent methane release from the lakes.
The idea originated from my doctoral research study, which focused on the potential of different approaches to reverse global warming, including afforestation projects developed in warm deserts. Our afforestation projects aim to benefit the regions that are hit hardest by global warming -- those with the greatest temperature extremes expected, highest population growth, and highest amount of imported food -- and decided to focus on the MENA region.
CCR: How can the Sahara sustain forests without constant human management?
VT: This was the exact reason I chose Egypt. There are documented historical switches in the climate of the Sahara and the Sahel; a savanna belt between the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa. When these climatic switches occur, the Sahara naturally becomes green again. Today, you could trigger these switches by afforesting the second valley of Egypt to connect existing oases. Using desert native tree varieties as carriers allows the system become fully self-sustaining after the initial afforestation activity. This is because these native tree species have deep roots, meaning that they can supply water to neighboring species, in addition to themselves, through capillary action. In addition, since Egypt sits above a Nubian aquifer, there is likely enough water to sustain these ecosystems for centuries to come (some sources say even millenniums). Finally, since the agroforestry system can be a source of life, income, and stability for the local, growing population, it will likely will not be abandoned.
CCR: What uncertainties remain as to the carbon sequestration potential of this project, and how are you working to address those uncertainties?
VT: The amount of carbon sequestration that our project will produce is not field tested. All our calculations are based on previous field research and afforestation projects. However, we know that carbon sequestration is dependent on the type of soil, the type of trees planted, and their density. We estimate that our activities will sequester 1.2 billion tons of carbon (approximately what Russia emits per year) based on an average sequestration rate of 3 tons of carbon per hectare per year over 50 years and a 5 cm initial silt layer. Yet, other similar projects in the region have recorded higher rates of sequestration. This uncertainty shows how crucial it is for us to be able to raise money in order to field test carbon sequestration to generate more precise data.
CCR: What kind of funding do you need, and what is the business model that you are pursuing?
VT: We plan to generate revenue by licensing our IP and by maintaining and monitoring the systems to deliver ecosystem services and other economic benefits. We have several funding goals, connected to various milestones. The cost of building a demo-pilot and supporting infrastructure to produce 1500 hectares of new soil is approximately 5 million euros, or 3300 euros/hectare.
CCR: What kinds of partners are you looking for now, and what are the biggest barriers you face for implementation? How do you plan to spread your message?
VT: We are looking to partner with the governments of desert countries around the world who are interested in capitalizing on the social, economic, and environmental benefits of our projects. We are also searching for impact investors, NGOs, and foundations with complementary missions to join forces with us. We know that it will be tough to get people moving and join our efforts to take action, so we are taking action from all sides. We are currently creating a social media campaigns and are lobbying with key influencers to further promote our project. We aim to build a strong coalition of people interested in our project to create momentum to make Afforest4Future a reality for the entire Sahara.