Company that offers farmers intel on trees adapts tech to measure carbon absorption

Tel Aviv-based SeeTree partners with US afforestation company GreenTrees to develop machine-learning-based approach to calculating carbon sequestration for carbon credit market

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Third from left is Israel Talpaz, cofounder and CEO of SeeTree, April 28, 2023. (NYSE)
Ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Third from left is Israel Talpaz, cofounder and CEO of SeeTree, April 28, 2023. (NYSE)

An Israeli agrotech company that helps farmers track the health of their trees on large plantations has joined an American afforestation company to calculate the amount of global warming carbon dioxide its trees are absorbing for the carbon trading market.

Two weeks ago, Tel Aviv-based SeeTree finished its first cycle of measuring the carbon held by trees and other vegetation planted by GreenTrees across 130,000 acres of the Mississippi delta.

On Arbor Day last month, SeeTree co-founder and CEO Israel Talpaz joined GreenTrees LLC to take part in ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

SeeTree combines data from drone or airplane-mounted cameras and information uploaded by farmers on the ground with machine learning to provide detailed digital files on every tree in a plantation.

It is working in Brazil, Mexico, the US and South Africa, and plans to expand into Europe and the Far East, Talpaz, who spent 23 years in Israeli intelligence, told The Times of Israel.

Using a drone in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Courtesy: SeeTree)

Some 18 months ago, GreenTrees approached SeeTree about using its technology to measure the carbon absorbed (‘sequestered’) by the new forests it was planting.

GreenTrees and the landowners with which it works have planted more than 60 million trees, according to its website. It leverages the carbon that the trees have absorbed during photosynthesis to issue carbon credits in the voluntary carbon trading market.

This trading enables emitters of global warming gases — governments, businesses, and individuals — to offset emissions they cannot cut by investing in projects that provide an alternative to emissions (such as renewable energy) or help reduce and store them (such as afforestation). The investment is recognized by carbon credits.

However, the voluntary carbon offset market is largely unregulated and littered with problems.

Academic analysis suggests that anything from a third to three-quarters of projects offering offsets don’t actually save any emissions because the projects would have been implemented regardless of the carbon payments.

January saw the publication of the results of a nine-month investigation by The Guardian newspaper, German weekly Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial, a non-profit investigative journalism organization, which charged that investments by huge companies such as Shell and Disney in carbon-guzzling rainforests, through one of the world’s most respected certifiers, Verra, were largely worthless.

“GreenTrees told me they needed three things,” Talpaz recalled. “Accuracy, transparency for all stakeholders, and speed.”

Israel Talpaz, cofounder and CEO of SeeTree. (Courtesy: SeeTree)

Talpaz explained that the usual method for calculating carbon was to send a forester with a tape measure and a rangefinder to measure the trunk diameter and height of all trees on a small plot. He or she then combined the findings with satellite data to extrapolate the results for large areas. “It’s very inaccurate, not transparent, and very time-consuming,” Talpaz said.

The organizations that verified the work of the foresters simply sent their own foresters in to repeat the work and test whether it yielded the same results, he went on.

By contrast, said Talpaz, “We can provide high resolution, ‘wall to wall’ measurement.  We measure a set of features relating to the trees, the vegetation, and the ground, in patches of 25 by 25 meters (625 square meters, or 6,730 square feet), and we measure every single patch. We do the groundwork to calibrate and make sure that everything is accurate. You can see every patch on our digital platform. We’ve achieved 97 percent accuracy.”

The plan is to gather the data and calculate the carbon once a year.

Screenshot of SeeTree’s platform. The plot colors represent carbon content per patch of land. Green signals the highest carbon level, and red the lowest. (Courtesy: SeeTree)

Now, SeeTree is going through the verification process with the American Carbon Registry.

Talpaz said he expected the methodology to be approved in the traditional, manual way, within the next few months, but added that the American Carbon Registry was keen to move into the digital field and would probably do so within the coming year.

SeeTree is currently broadening its data gathering to look for risks of fire and floods that could harm the trees and reduce their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. “We want to make sure that each patch of land is full to the maximum extent,” he said. “Weeds cause fires.”

SeeTree employs more than 100 people, just over half of them in Tel Aviv, where management is centered and R&D is carried out.

The company’s investors include the Israeli drip irrigation company Netafim, the Japanese Kubota Tractor Corporation, the International Finance Corporation (the private-sector arm of the World Bank Group), the venture capital fund Hanaco Ventures, and Uri Levine, co-founder of the traffic and navigation application, Waze.

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