Living Carbon is a young company that has decided to use the power of plants to tackle climate change. It uses genetic engineering to make trees grow faster so they could be able to capture and store more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
The startup founded in 2019 has expanded from planting just over 600 trees in a field trial in Corvallis, Oregon, into growing 1.6 billion trees in the US a year.
We continue the conversation with Living Carbon and its work in mitigating the climate crisis. We interviewed the company’s co-founder and CEO Maddie Hall that told us more about the company’s mission and its latest developments.
What is the motivation behind Living Carbon? Why did you decide to start this enterprise in the first place?
First, I decided to start Living Carbon, because there’s such a need for developing large-scale carbon removal projects at low cost. And I think biology has a lot of potential and the tools right now to use things like gene editing, and advanced biotech biotechnology.
They are able to create these highly additional nature-based solutions that overcome some of the typical challenges with nature-based carbon removal. And I also think if we want to remove CO2 as quickly as we need to, we have to have some sort of plant cell system that can scale up the captured carbon without the need to grow another large plant.
How long have you been working in this field? Would you tell us a bit more about your background?
So my background, I always kind of thought about starting a company but needed to find something that I was truly passionate about. I spent time as a Product Manager at a health tech company. I was working on an insurer tech when I was younger and just graduated from college.
Then, I went to work at a seed-stage venture capital firm, on the product management side of things. I learned there what investors are looking for when they invest in companies. I got familiar with the variety of different businesses that people are starting and what are the spaces.
After that, I became a chief of staff at OpenAI. That was a really cool opportunity as I got to work on something that was about to have a very large impact on the world. Everyone there was thinking on a 20-year time horizon, which I really found fulfilling and interesting.
I was working on a problem that I believed was to be one of the most important problems. At that time everyone was starting AI companies, and it was the trendy word in everyone’s pitch back.
But no one was thinking about this other equally as a large existential threat, climate change, at least not in the tech space. There was no investor money going towards it and people didn’t really see it as a business opportunity, as well as something that you could start a company around.
So it felt like I had this unique opportunity to go and do something that was in the climate tech space. And Living Carbon to me seems like a good opportunity because there are a lot of talented, plant biotechnologists that go into the space because they love our planet.
And then they end up working on something like cancer research, which is, of course, incredibly important, or working at a chemical company. Living Carbon is able to give them the opportunity to work on something that is a world-class and super frontier and also connected to the mission they have. This is also a really good opportunity to hire some of the best people in the world.
Why did you pick genetically modified trees in particular as a way to tackle climate change?
I read a bunch of research around the efficiency of photosynthesis enhancement in increasing biomass assimilation. Creating more plant biomass over a shorter period of time makes a lot more sense to do with trees, as they’re growing for a really long time.
So from a carbon additionality perspective, the Product Market Fit made a lot more sense for photosynthesis enhancement to be used in trees. So that was one reason.
Another reason why that initially made sense is that we want to be able to work within an existing infrastructure. We didn’t want to have to innovate on the MRP across the board.
We already plant 1.6 billion trees a year in the US. Some of our suppliers already work on hundreds of millions of trees, so being able to plug into an infrastructure that already exists allows you to scale which is really important for us.
Many people could be wondering whether planting genetically modified trees in nature is in any way dangerous. What are the risks of releasing genetically modified trees into the environment?
When it comes to thinking about the risks and benefits, it’s really important to look at what is already happening in nature. About 15% of all plants already have what’s called C4-photosynthesis, or CAM photosynthesis, which is more efficient photosynthesis that has evolved so plants can survive in harsher climates.
And we’ve actually warmed the world so quickly that evolution has no chance. We have to allow for our plants to be more resilient to climate change in decades, not millennia. Otherwise, it will be too late. And if you look at some recent studies, about 60% of plant biomass or different types of species of plants won’t be able to survive the harsher landscapes.
For me, humans have to see that our technology is enabling solutions and we should see ourselves as part of that ecosystem, as opposed to just being here to benefit from it. I think historically what has given genetic engineering a bad rap has been the focus on the traits that people would engineer into plants to be pesticide resistant or resistant to a specific herbicide.
And that results in more herbicides and pesticides being used. That’s very different from what we’re doing. To the point in which USDA actually said that we don’t increase the likelihood of plant pest risk or invasiveness of the species. So as a result, we’re not regulated in the same way.
One of your latest developments is that you expect to plant 4 million trees in 2023. Is that correct?
Yeah, it’s been really exciting to see how interested landowners are in participating in carbon markets. They see it as a potential annual revenue stream. We specifically focus on land where trees otherwise wouldn’t be planted like abandoned mine lands, areas where there isn’t an existing, rich ecosystem that’s allowing for a large amount of carbon removal right now.
Sometimes the biggest blocker to us is not the propagation of the trees, it’s not securing the supply chain and it’s not even the genetics, it’s actually the administrative work and the bureaucratic work that goes along with developing carbon projects.
And, in part, that’s by design, because they should be treated like a security. But I think there must be a more scalable way for us to do this because we couldn’t plant 10s, 100 million trees at one point. The hardest part is the registration of the projects and all of that work which is not what I expected at all.
We also did two plantings on land sites this spring that have seen a 97% survivability of our trees, which is really exciting. And that’s the window where you typically see the highest mortality. So we hope that survivability will continue to be high over the winter and planting seasons.
Do you have an approximate estimation of how much CO2 is stored in your genetically modified trees?
If we keep doubling the number of trees we plant every year, by 2030 we will have planted enough trees that over the lifetime of the project would remove 1.66% of 2021 global emissions, which would be over 600 megatons, I believe.
You have also received funding from Stripe’s Frontier Fund for an R&D project. Would you tell us more about that project?
We’ve always wanted to work on not just increasing the rate of carbon capture, but also the durability of storage. So we did some work around metal hyperaccumulation as natural fungicides that can prevent the decomposition of CO2 or the decomposition of woody biomass and the return of CO2 to the atmosphere.
This project in particular is focused on the synthesis of durable biopolymers in certain plant cell systems like algae, and potentially trees as well. But we’re looking in particular into biopolymers that have been found in fossil record to store carbon for millions of years, which is incredibly exciting. Then we get into the idea of how can you get scale and durability combined into one solution.
Also, if someone is interested in purchasing carbon credits from Living Carbon, how can they do that?
You can purchase our carbon credits on Patch as well as Watershed. You can also reach out to our website. We’ve got a form that you can fill out if you’re interested in going directly to us to purchase carbon credits.