Net-Zero and the Biodiversity Crisis
How Gentian Is Using AI to Map the Natural World
Written by Thomas Falconer
Here’s the net-zero challenge in a nutshell: To preserve a sustainable, habitable climate, greenhouse-gas emissions must be reduced by half by 2030 and to net-zero by 2050. Aggressive action by governments and businesses is required. But a problem, as Dan White, co-founder of Gentian, sees it, is that “there are thousands of startups to reduce carbon. Less than 50 focus on biodiversity. And that’s crazy when you think about the scale of the biodiversity crisis.”
Many species are in decline. Since 1970, populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians that are known to science have declined by 70%, according to the World Wildlife Fund. And estimates are that these known populations represent only about 20% of life on Earth. So we don’t even know the full extent of what we’re losing when biodiversity declines.
We do know that one of the most effective ways to mitigate the impact of climate change is through protecting and encouraging biodiversity. And the good news is that the value of nature, and the critical role of healthy, sustainable biodiversity in achieving net-zero goals, is finally permeating discussions about net-zero and climate change, from Davos and the U.N. to urban farms and local environmental councils. And that’s a good thing.
All of that said, the word “biodiversity” is so ubiquitous that, often, the assumption is that its meaning is understood universally. But, even today, a surprising number of people don’t know what it means. Loosely defined, biodiversity is all the different kinds of life you’ll find in one area — the variety of animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms like bacteria that make up our natural world. Each of these species and organisms work together in ecosystems, like an intricate web, to maintain balance and support life. When one part of that ecosystem is changed, the entire system is affected. That’s where the crisis begins. And that’s what Dan White and Gentian are working to prevent.
The Birdman of Brampton
The best startup entrepreneurs come to that role with diverse experiences that produce leaders who can strategize, hire and manage the right people, craft an innovative, purposeful culture, and work in the day-to-day trenches. Dan exemplifies that persona.
Dan grew up near England’s Lake District, a mountainous, forested region in Northwest England. He developed an early fascination with local fauna, particularly birds, and gained a reputation as an expert in local ornithology. That passion followed him to university, and he studied Ecology at Lancaster University, focusing on flora.
His early career revealed a passion for the social sciences. Working with homeless teenagers, he crafted a program assisting pre-release women prisoners to reduce recidivism. After that, Dan went on to work as an energy and sustainability officer, with a mission to reduce fuel and food poverty with sustainability as a core principle.
The project that would change the direction of his career was his work for the London Borough of Camden. As Senior Energy and Sustainability Officer, Dan was responsible for the integration of energy efficiency and environmental improvements to a social housing stock of 30,000 homes. He raised over £10 million in external funding that led to energy-efficiency improvements delivered to thousands of homes using large-scale innovative methods to successfully change residents’ behaviors. Two of those innovations had impact on Dan’s trajectory:
“I designed and specified a number of green roofs in Camden and helped to create one of the U.K.’s first housing policies on green roof retrofitting. And to further bring biodiversity to buildings, I managed the installation of in situ nest boxes into buildings in areas where the vulnerable European swift (apus apus) was known to frequent.” The Birdman of Brampton who studied ecology at Uni had arrived.
Gentian, URBAN-X, And The Future (Which Is Now)
Dan is now co-founder and CEO of Gentian, a climate tech company that leverages remote sensing data and proprietary machine learning models to accelerate the speed of ecological surveying. Gentian is one of the first technology startups to apply deep learning to habitat recognition, automating processes which used to require significant — and expensive — manual labor and expertise.
Dan says that “because our algorithms are fast, highly accurate, reliable, and fully autonomous, our platform dramatically reduces the time and cost of ecological surveying.”
And timing is everything. McKinsey recently named nature-based solutions as one of the ten families of climate technologies critical to meeting the net-zero challenge. That means monitoring and verification of biodiversity for forests, peatlands, and mangroves, but also urban and suburban ecosystems.
Gentian was selected to be part of the current cohort of URBAN-X startups. The URBAN-X mission is to make cities more sustainable, livable, and resilient through innovative use of technology. Dan says it’s a match made in heaven. “Our relationship with URBAN-X gives us access to world-class resources for design and development, a global network for customer and deployment connections, and a proven model of fundraising success. For a startup like ours, these are essential tools, right at the moment where we need to scale and grow.”
An area of particular passion and focus for Gentian is improving urban resilience. That’s not at all surprising given Dan’s roots in London working on sustainability and reducing food and energy poverty.
Estimates by the U.N. are that by 2030, 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. By 2050 that’s projected to be 68%. “At those levels, urban farms and gardens can provide critical support for biodiversity,” Dan says. Just one of the services Gentian can provide is surveying rooftops for green roof viability.
Green roofs soften the landscape, making for cooler city temperatures that require less need for air conditioning. That greenspace also provides surfaces that improve water conservation and mitigate pluvial flooding. And the social benefits of urban gardens and farms have already proven to be enormous, especially for mental health and community building.
Governments, NGOs, and businesses have a stake in biodiversity monitoring too. Companies are recognizing the value that nature provides and are getting more positively aggressive about their ESG efforts. Habitat mapping as cities grow and change can mitigate damage to the biodiversity ecosystem. Nature loss poses a major risk to businesses, while moving to nature-positive investments offers opportunity. The market-led, science-based Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures framework will enable companies and financial institutions to integrate nature into decision making and risk assessment. And Gentian’s SaaS model can be a profoundly useful asset in that process.
As far as talent is concerned, Dan says that “From a technology perspective, we have the talent in place, and there’s a lot we’re doing that is massively exciting.” Gentian employs machine learning, with a primary focus on what’s called ground-truth learning. Ground truth is information collected remotely, on location, and is essential to Gentian’s remote sensing capabilities.
As fires burn in Canada, and New York City is engulfed in the resultant smoke, Dan’s words give us hope: “AI and machine learning have the potential to provide enormous value in mapping our natural world. And we’re only at the tip of the iceberg where this can take us. Ultimately, our goal is to enable an optimal transition to a world where we live well with nature.”