This Startup Is Fighting Climate Change With Suburban Lawns

Since the onset of COVID-19, suburban life has suddenly taken on a new attraction. In this age of pandemic, widely spaced houses set back on verdant, manicured lawns represent spatial inoculation from disease as much as they do bourgeois domesticity.

What if those wide lawns could also help to mitigate climate change?

An entrepreneur in Atlanta, Joseph Kelly, has successfully demonstrated to large corporate clients and carbon registries that underground mycelial networks can naturally sequester enormous amounts of carbon dioxide without altering the commercial or leisure activities that are taking place aboveground in any way.

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Kelly’s aim is to democratize the fight against climate change by encouraging American families to sequester one extra ton of carbon dioxide every year using his company’s NetZero “mycelial orbs” — thereby cultivating living carbon capture networks in their own lawns.

While you may not think of your neat carpet of Bermuda grass as a carbon sink, scientists estimate that American lawns have a carbon sequestration capacity of roughly 650 million tons per year. According to Kelly’s calculations, NetZero’s mycelial orb treatments can roughly double the amount of atmospheric carbon captured by America’s lawns (whose average size is 10,871 square feet), boosting the sequestration capacity to roughly 1.3 gigatons. The difference represents around 13% of the world’s global emissions of CO2 related to changes in land use each year.

The NetZero orbs will go on sale via a Kickstarter campaign launching just after the presidential campaign concludes (fingers crossed), and early supporters will be able to buy the orbs at a significant discount to the retail price.

When a customer purchases an orb, they will also have access to the NetZero app, developed by the same team that built apps for the magazines The New Yorker and The Atlantic. The app was designed to give users an augmented reality view of their carbon footprints and how they can reduce it. Kelly reports that a corporate version of the AR app is scheduled for launch next year.

Sales of the NetZero orbs also subsidize afforestation projects that hire predominantly women in Nepal, Bali, and Uganda through Kelly’s organization, the Sacred Rivers Climate Project. SRCP has established projects in these developing countries that are planting new forests and preserving existing ones using the theoretical framework pioneered by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki and supplemented by the cultivation of their own mycelial networks.

When I heard about the NetZero orbs, Kelly’s demonstrated success with pilot projects for large corporate clients like Cummins Diesel CMI and Shell Oil, and understood his vision helping communities in developing countries, I immediately loved what he was doing for three reasons:

  1. Underground mycelial networks are additive to the land’s carbon sequestration capacity without limiting what can be done aboveground. This helps avoid land use competition mentioned in my article, Expert: Beware of Simple Solutions – Tree Planting Won’t Solve Climate Change.
  2. Literally anyone with access to a plot of land – whether that land is owned or leased – can use the NetZero orbs to decrease their carbon footprint by around 1 ton per year for at least 10 years. Thoughtful individuals and families are concerned about what personal steps they can take to mitigate climate change – dissolving a NetZero mycelial orb in water and spraying the solution onto your lawn is easy and effective.
  3. The Sacred Rivers Climate Project, which the NetZero orbs help support, is focused on making a positive economic impact on fragile communities through sustainability projects while simultaneously sequestering carbon through mycelial networks and newly planted trees. The projects focus on economically empowering women and girls, which has myriad positive social and environmental effects.

Kelly’s organization advocates for direct action and personal responsibility, and in this age of increasingly obvious and severe ecological impacts, we should all be grabbing an oar to help in rowing our communal boat against the tide of climate change.

It would also be great to see corporations exploring the carbon capture potential in mycelial networks in their sustainability programs. Kelly’s firm had several successful pilots with global, Fortune 100 firms, partnering in one program with a builder specializing in green roofs. In fact, the research that helped open Kelly’s eyes to the potential of mycelial networks was a green roof project carried out at a dozen locations in my hometown of Chicago.

In general, fungi are truly astounding organisms – neither plant nor animal, but making up their own, ancient kingdom that developed a symbiotic relationship with plants over hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

In terms of their effects on natural ecosystems, mycelial networks have been shown to make forested land more resilient and healthy, increasing the ability of trees to absorb water and nutrients, spurring regrowth after fires, and even facilitating inter-tree communication — all important benefits considering how much stress the warming climate is placing on trees.

In addition to capturing carbon, fungi have been used in the cleanup polluted rivers, chemical spills, and one famous mycologist, Paul Stamets, believes they may represent a tool to in cleaning up radioactive disaster areas such as the one in Fukushima, Japan.

While Joseph Kelly and his team’s work is very different from the kind of industrial systems I often feature in this column, I believe it has real merit and should be looked at seriously as part of the solution to mitigate climate change.

Whether it’s Joseph Kelly working with natural mycelial networks or Dr. David Keith, whose industrial innovations power Carbon Engineering’s technology, we all know that the world has little time for doctrinal disputes about differing approaches to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Projects offering scientifically-demonstrated benefits should be engaged, funded, and, publicly sponsored. As a species, we are behind the eight ball now and need to start shooting all the arrows in our quiver if our civilization is to thrive and survive into the next century.

Intelligent investors take note.

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