How A Regenerative Revolution Could Reverse Climate Change

Written by Lorin Fries, Forbes

Earlier this month the world’s leading climate scientists released the most urgent warning on climate change to date. It describes the implications of our current warming trajectory, including dire food shortages, large-scale human migration and crises ranging from a mass die-off of coral reefs to increasingly extreme weather events. To reverse course, the report calls for a global transformation of historically unprecedented speed and scale. As one of the IPCC study’s co-chairs emphasized, “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”

Among the ambitious ideas to meet this challenge is to enable a regenerative revolution, one that supplants our extractive economic model and goes beyond “sustainability” to draw down carbon and reverse course on climate change. Marc Barasch is among the leaders striving to galvanize such a transformation. He is the founder and executive director of the Green World Campaign, and an environmental activist who co-convened a first-of-its-kind conference for a regenerative society earlier this year. In our interview he shares what a regenerative revolution might achieve, how technology can help, and how we could advance this economic transition.

Lorin Fries: There is a surge in discussion around “regeneration.” What does it mean?

Marc Barasch: Regeneration is a design principle that works to ensure that all inputs and outputs, upstream and downstream, people and planet, conduce to the health of the whole system.

As someone who has been a cancer patient, I tend to think in healing metaphors—it’s not just attacking the disease, but activating the body-wide immune system. It’s going beyond remediating the symptoms to healing the root causes of pathology. If sustainability is about avoiding negative footprints, regeneration is about leaving positive handprints—lots of them.

Regeneration means not just lowering CO2 emissions to prevent further damage, but looking at how to potentially reverse climate change—designing endeavors that are not just carbon-neutral, but "carbon-negative.” It’s not being content with a model of sustainability where a company’s operations are fundamentally extractive but it sprinkles in corporate social responsibility to mitigate some of the harm. Rather, it’s building regeneration into the operations themselves, resulting in positive environmental impacts and improving human wellbeing.

Fries: Why should we focus on regeneration now?

Barasch: If we stopped emitting carbon from every tailpipe and smokestack on the planet today, it would not solve global climate change. We’re in a crisis, and it’s only the beginning. We need to reverse course, not just hold the line. We have legacy carbon in the atmosphere that has to be drawn back down. Soil, trees and vegetation naturally capture carbon, if they’re healthy. The Rodale Institute has found that if current farmland practices shifted to regenerative, organic approaches, 100% of annual global CO2 emissions would be sequestered. That’s how powerful soil carbon sequestration is—but we’re not practicing it at anywhere near the scale that’s needed.

Fries: What technologies might enable a regenerative revolution?

Barasch: Blockchain is one opportunity. An excellent example is China’s Ant Forest initiative, where 200 million Alipay customers signed up to perform green good deeds in exchange for tree planting tokens, demonstrating a pent-up demand from the public to respond directly to the current crisis. Each person can accumulate enough positive credits to get a virtual “tree”—and for each of these, Alipay plants a real one. They reached a couple million trees already and have a new goal of half a trillion. This shows the hidden funding potential in small contributions, which can be blockchain enabled, to fund a regenerative revolution.

In 2010 the Green World Campaign in Kenya helped to innovate a community-based currency called the Eco-Pesa. Years later, this seed has ripened into a Bancor Foundation project that will allow any community to establish a local currency interoperable with other similar currencies. I’m now working to create a Green World Token that is conceived as a form of reserve currency based on natural capital as the underlying asset—what I refer to as a “treeconomy”—based not only on forest and soil carbon, but increased soil organic matter, an improved hydrological cycle, biodiversity, community health and income, nutrition security and other holistic regenerative factors.

Fries: It seems that using the blockchain to tokenize markets, such as for carbon, might be a breakthrough strategy?

Barasch: Yes, this is a live wire conversation. It’s about asking, “How can we crowdsource the future?” Novel fintech, including blockchain, could help redirect the billions of dollars in capital needed to achieve regenerative impacts at scale. The latest IPCC report has said there needs to be a rapid transformation of our economic system, and I believe such new instruments will be key—though it’s obviously still early days, with many misfires. There’s an opportunity to go beyond the carbon market to finance a greater variety of conservation, sustainability and regeneration goals, monitoring them through ground-truthing, satellite, drone, Internet of Things (IoT), recording them in distributed ledger, and assigning a market value. I’m aware, for example, of non-speculative, blockchain-based “coins” for everything from planting mangrove trees to saving Asian tigers to poverty alleviation.

Fries: How do we secure larger-ticket financing for regeneration?

Barasch: We need to create a regenerative asset class. Investors don’t currently see viable deals in the regenerative space. The projects are all too small, too nascent, and the speed of return is too slow. We need to integrate slow money assets—I call it “capital at the speed of nature”—in innovative ways. Many useful mechanisms already exist within our financial systems, but they haven’t been repurposed for regeneration. We need to devise a spectrum of enabling mechanisms for a multi-trillion transition from the degenerative to the regenerative economy that is synchronous with the intergenerational wealth transfer that’s underway.

Fries: What current opportunities could propel this economic transition?

Barasch: One powerful opportunity is carbon divestment. At first fossil fuel companies dismissed it as a pinprick in their balance sheet; it's now a $6 trillion movement, which Shell recently reported was a material threat to their business. There could be $20 trillion or more in stranded assets from the decline of the fossil fuel industry as renewable energy becomes ever more cost-competitive. If the right investment mechanisms and instruments emerge to reallocate some of that capital—such as public and philanthropic monies that de-risk private sector investments in regenerative moonshots—this could be equivalent to the rise of the renewables sector.

Fries: How do you see large farms and companies engaging in the regenerative movement?

Barasch: Revising our chemical-dependent, soil-destroying form of agriculture requires a way for farmers to transition. They know that these practices are harming the land that they want to pass on to their children, but they feel stuck in this system. This is a transition that Rodale Institute, Patagonia and a consortium of companies are trying to facilitate through a new regenerative organic standard. Giants like Unilever, Danone, General Mills and others are also developing regenerative agriculture initiatives and announcing new sourcing commitments.

Fries: In May you co-hosted ReGen18. What were your goals, and what did it achieve?

Barasch: My goal with ReGen18 was to convene a leadership summit to accelerate the emergence of what I call the “Regenerative Society.”  Our team hoped to facilitate attendees to concretely collaborate for scalable systems change, to develop sense-making tools, incubators and accelerators – all aimed at catalyzing an economy and culture committed to equitably shared prosperity within ecological boundaries.

By most calculations, we have only 60 harvests left on earth if we continue our current practices. There is a broad, growing global movement “beyond sustainability” that is informing fields from agriculture to architecture, ecology to economics. I like to think, optimistically, that it points to a path through our current civilizational crisis, and offers some hope for the permanent flourishing of people and planet. We can do this. We have to.

Originally published by Forbes on Oct. 21, 2018