Vibrant Planet — which is creating an “operating system for forest restoration” — comes as a pleasant surprise, and not one I expected.
Climate tech, while relatively new, has settled into two camps: hardware and software. And while Vibrant Planet is definitely a software play — from its cloud focus to its per-seat licenses, it’s SaaS through and through — its end goal is different from many others.
The startup, which this week announced a $17 million seed round, isn’t just trading carbon credits or providing carbon accounting software. It’s trying to tackle a very real and very hard problem — how to first save, then restore, the world’s damaged forests.
Having been trained as a landscape ecologist, I’ve grown somewhat cynical that forest conservation and the free market can exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. From a markets-first perspective, forests tend to be either exploited or forgotten.
Yet Vibrant Planet clearly thinks there’s an opportunity in helping the world manage a multitrillion-dollar asset.
A landmark paper from 1997 estimated that forests provide $4.7 trillion worth of annual economic benefits worldwide, including fresh water, lumber, nutrient cycling, erosion control, and climate regulation. While there’s no truly global way to adjust the dollar figure for inflation, it’s basically equivalent to 15% of global GDP.
In theory, carbon credits aren’t a bad idea. In fact, they’re probably one of the least bad ideas we’ve tried when it comes to using free markets to foster forest preservation. It’s just that in practice, they leave a lot to be desired.
Carbon credits are an attempt to bring forests into the economic fold. They’re well-intentioned, though I’m skeptical about them. More on that later, though, because while Vibrant Plant has a plan to work with the carbon markets, it’s starting on much firmer ground with fire-adapted forests.
And there are plenty of those. It’s starting in California and, soon, the entire American West, where forest fires have been growing in frequency and intensity. After that, Vibrant Planet could head Down Under to Australia, where eucalyptus forests, which have long coexisted with fire, burned catastrophically in the 2019-2020 fire season. It could even take its product to Brazil and the Cerrado ecoregion, which was traditionally managed with fire for centuries.
Beginning with fire-adapted forests is a smart move. For one, it lets Vibrant Planet test its product close to home in familiar and well-studied forests. But it also gives it a chance to address climate change in a way that’s more immediate.