24yo entrepreneur says hi-tech needed to measure carbon savings.
The claims are often heard: “Our carbon project is producing high quality offsets and we are planting lots of trees; we are doing our bit to save the planet”.
But how do we actually know? How do they actually know? In New Zealand, the answer to those questions largely lies with 24-year-old Kiwi entrepreneur Saurav J. Bansal. His company GAIT (Green Artificial Intelligence Technology) aims to take the guesswork out of New Zealand’s carbon market.
At the moment, says Bansal, we can’t tell whether offsets used by many organisations and carbon credit counting are accurate: “There are currently major problems within global green markets, a lot of fraud or transparency issues, a lot of greenwashing, a lot of double counting of carbon credits.”
There are well-meaning carbon projects, he says, trying to do the right thing but who are using “rudimentary technology” – and who therefore don’t know whether the level of carbon abatement they think they are achieving are real. GAIT’s machine-learning software technology platform measures carbon abatement digitally, in real-time, combining flux sensors, spatial data and artificial intelligence to create a robust and highly accurate form of measurement.
To understand GAIT’s drive to bring clarity to a clouded subject and a behind-the-times market in New Zealand, you also need to understand Bansal’s background. Born and raised in Auckland, the son of a Tongan mum and an Indian dad, he spent time in both countries and, even in his youth, realised how much Tonga’s subsistence lifestyles depended on agriculture and fishing.
“Even when I was growing up, you could see the effects of weather patterns that affected people’s livelihoods there,” he says. “It was obvious to see the effects climate change would have on Tonga, with rising sea levels and storms. New Zealand has also seen the effects of climate change with Cyclone Gabrielle and the Auckland flooding – and something must change.:
Deputy head prefect at King’s College, Bansal left Auckland for Sydney University to do a Master’s degree in information systems to go with his Bachelor’s degree in commerce. A stint as a consultant, deep in Silicon Valley technology issues, came before appointment as chief marketing officer for Develop for Good, a US-based non-profit creating technical tools for other non-profits. He helped oversee more than 80 partners including UNICEF, World Health Organisation and The World Bank.
It was there Bansal first saw the potential for artificial intelligence in green markets: “During Covid, when everyone was going virtual and needed tech help, we had a lot of exposure to back-end operations of various organisations – and to data visualisation. We were able to ask a lot of questions about the context in which that data was being gathered and used.
“It gave me a lot of insight into what was happening in the world and, with organisations like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Network, we saw the stark reality they and other groups were facing [with climate change].
“GAIT was an opportunity to do something I’m passionate about in an area in which I could genuinely make an impact.”
He is doing so with technology that emphatically overtakes many current carbon measuring practices as basic as shovels being taken to fields, with soil samples sent to laboratories. A measuring tape is often used to size tree widths. The results are compared against a table detailing how much carbon a similar-sized tree would have abated at one point in time.
GAIT’s technology sees sensors collect data on atmospheric gases and satellites collect spatial data while the platform (made up of internet-of-things, cloud infrastructure and artificial intelligence) analyses it. That gives carbon projects – including tree-planting, conservation work, waste conversion and renewable energy – better and more immediate awareness of their environmental impact.
“There is enormous potential in carbon markets in New Zealand and in diversifying away from a major focus on pine as the go-to carbon project type,” he says. “Our technology provides instant feedback for those already undertaking carbon sequestration projects.
“For those who want to make a change, our technology can support that journey. How do you make a change if you don’t know how to measure that change or even know what the change is?”
The problem with old technology and some organisations pushing their green credentials when accuracy is less than guaranteed is that it disturbs the transition of our society into a genuinely carbon-freer one, Bansal says. Achievements claimed might not actually be the case – and the path to lowering emissions and effective carbon sequestration becomes more difficult.
GAIT is currently working with the owners of Lake Hawea Station, one of the country’s premier high-country farms, supporting their vision to become 10 times carbon positive: “Lake Hawea Station is in the fortunate position of being able to instigate some really cool practices – and we can help create a case study which might benefit everyday farmers.”
That work dovetails with GAIT’s project with Lincoln University’s Centre of Excellence for Designing Future Productive Landscapes, working with the research centre to understand the ecology and full journey of a dairy farm, including the farm’s carbon sequestration and carbon emissions.
“Farmers have been told they will have to pay a tax on their emissions but there are many farmers who are taking great steps to make their farms environmentally friendly,” says Bansal. “What we are looking at is how we can measure this so these farmers can be rewarded, with their actions taken into account in regard to the tax or maybe even given some sort of subsidy.”