The Norigins: How I got involved with creating a carbon removal marketplace
**This post originally appeared on the Healthy Climate Alliance Blog**
I remember feeling both relief and gratitude when I first spoke with Peter Fiekowsky over the phone and learned about the community he was building with the Healthy Climate Alliance. Admittedly, the goal to revert a planet to 300 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the year 2050 is audacious, if not damn near impossible. However, it is in the exact direction where we as a globe need to be headed in order to restore the climate. I’m proud to be part of a community that is behind this goal and happy to be doing my part. We’re in. Along with sharing knowledge about options to manage carbon through my writingsand co-hosting the weekly “Reversing Climate Change” podcast, I’ve been working with a team to build the new platform Nori that is creating a new way to pay for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I am grateful to the Healthy Climate Alliance for taking an interest in the the factors that went into starting Nori and how it relates to climate restoration. This blog tracks the origins of Nori — the “Norigins.” It covers how I started my career, the pivot into working on solving climate change, working with Klaus Lackner, starting Carbon A List as a consultancy and then starting Nori with Paul Gambill and five other co-founders. The purpose of Nori is to make it possible to reverse climate change by making it easy to pay to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
I started out my career as an educator, then fundraiser. My lightbulb moment to pivot my career to work on restoring the climate came from a night class in 2012 at NYU which had Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” and Al Gore’s “Our Choice” on the reading list. Both these books had a profound effect on me. I saw the climate challenge as one of coordination: it required getting the science right, the money where it was needed, and the incentives in place to make it all work.
Less than a year later, I started the one-year accelerated Environmental Science and Policy Master’s program at Columbia University to hone my skills as a generalist who could connect the dots between science, finance, and policy. I was extremely fortunate to get a communications internship at the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy and to work with the director at the time, Klaus Lackner.
I first walked into Lackner’s lab in the Earth and Environmental Engineering Department at Columbia in the fall of 2013. Lackner’s work centered around the discovery of a material which could passively extract carbon dioxide from the air at over 1000 times the effectiveness of a tree per unit of biomass, using only water and warm, dry air. I was hooked.
By summer of 2014. I had graduated from my Master’s program and Lackner had noticed my work. He was starting a new center at Arizona State University and brought me along as Chief Strategist. Together we started the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions (CNCE). For two years I helped the center win grants, generated business contacts, launched an industry consortium, managed the center’s communications, and presented at a number of conferences.
I met Paul Gambill, who would eventually become co-founder of Nori, over Twitter in March 2016 when I was managing CNCE’s account. We spoke for over an hour Skype on the same day.
Working for Lackner at CNCE under world-class experts and advancing a critical field of science and technology was an incredibly valuable experience. However, I felt ready to take an entrepreneurial jump and go beyond my comfort zone. In June 2016, I left ASU to start Carbon A List as a consultancy. I thought that I would need to expand the scope of my work beyond CNCE: I would need to sharpen my skills as an analyst, salesman, storyteller, and networker, while developing a new way to make it as easy as possible to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
By starting Carbon A List and working for a range of clients across various components of sustainability, I learned a number of lessons that further shaped my trajectory:
- The carbon utilization industry has stagnated and will not move forward on its own.
- The carbon offset industry is fraught with issues.
- Online learning communities are crucial, but need to be built responsively around a specific purpose.
- Platform technology applications can solve almost any problem that requires payment.
- Analysis is important, but software and teams create scale.
Paul and I met in person at the Closing the Carbon Cycle conference in September 2016 which Carbon A List organized for CNCE. We reconnected over the phone in June 2017 and discussed ways to potentially work together. When I said the words, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the blockchain,” and Paul responded “I’ve been thinking a lot about the blockchain!” that was it. Once we got together, we realized that our skills, backgrounds, and visions complemented each other. It was obvious that by working together we could build something much larger than ourselves.
Shortly after we agreed to go into business together, we entered a hackathon sponsored by a blockchain company called ConsenSys. The Blockchain for Social Impact Hackathon was basically a month long business planning competition. It was a forcing mechanism to do all the things we needed to do anyway. We expanded the team, adding blockchain developer Jaycen Horton, environmental engineer Alexsandra Guerra and blockchain strategist Ross Kenyon. As part of the competition, we came up with the name Nori, validated the market, and devised a plan to launch. We won the Energy and Environment section of the hackathon. Three of the team members stayed on as co-founders, and we added two more all-stars: Aldyen Donnelly, an economist with almost 3 decades of experience in the carbon markets, and Paul Carduner, a software engineer who had sold his company to Facebook and subsequently led the engineering development of the Facebook videos platform.
So what’s the idea?
We are building a software platform to establish a voluntary carbon removal marketplace. Think of it as a store where you can pay someone to remove carbon from the atmosphere and trust that action happened. We are issuing a blockchain token as a new market mechanism that will be pegged to removing one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Our aim is to make it as easy as possible for people to pay other people to remove carbon.
The first supply of the marketplace will come from farmers who are practicing regenerative agriculture. While we start with agriculture and soil-based approaches, our platform is built in a way that commoditizes carbon removal and can pay for any technique that can remove carbon from the atmosphere. We are building the platform in a way such that:
- Everything we are doing is out in the open. We’re releasing a weekly podcast where we provide real-time company updates, creating code that is entirely open-sourced (including the carbon accounting methodologies which will be on our platform), and sharing openly with the world how we do things. This will enable rapid improvements on our carbon removal approach.
- We’re getting rid of additionality requirements. In the current carbon offset markets, additionality requirements state that a project has to prove that its outcome wouldn’t have happened without the incentive of receiving carbon offset credits. The only projects that qualify for carbon offsets under that scheme are the ones which are, by definition, not profitable. We think that’s silly.
- We can reform the carbon offset system from the outside. Our platform creates a product that spurs other improvements over the current system including: increasing transparency, linking the physical record of the action to a digital asset so that it can only be traded once, and dramatically lowering cost of expensive middlemen.
- We are building a voluntary market mechanism focused on climate restoration. Everything the world is doing today to address climate change is focused on reducing present and future greenhouse gas emissions or adapting to climate risk through increasing resilience. At Nori, we don’t dispute the necessity of these actions. However, in order to provide a sustainable planet for our children, we need to remove past emissions. Paying for the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is the only way that we can be sure to reverse the course of our trajectory and restore the climate. Because the world can’t wait for a top-down policy, we are kick-starting the effort with a mechanism that is completely voluntary.
The story of Nori is being written right now. We have seven people on our team, with the support of a broader team of advisors, experts, agencies, and partners, along with the ever-growing community behind the goal to reverse climate change using a new voluntary carbon removal marketplace. We aren’t doing it alone, and we are enthusiastic to join the fellow travelers and organizations who can help us get to a world below 300 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. We approach this challenge with extreme humility, a learning mindset, and total transparency. For both the hype that is happening around other cryptocurrencies, and ineptitude of the current paradigm to address climate change, let Nori be a counterweight that shows how a team that understands the science of carbon removal, the failures of environmental markets, and the technology behind the blockchain, can create an entirely new incentive structure that allows volunteers who want to start restoring the climate to be able to get started.