Crypto for climate: Interview with Jeremy Epstein, Open Forest Protocol
As part of our quest to uncover some of the most impactful projects in the NEAR ecosystem, we sat down with Jeremy Epstein, Head of Growth at Open Forest Protocol. After a rich career in the climate industry, Jeremy found in crypto an avenue for developing innovative technical solutions to long-pressing environmental issues.
Read our interview with him to learn more about the mission of Open Forest Protocol and how the transparency afforded by open blockchains like OFP can positively impact our Earth’s future.
Tell us about your background and foray into crypto
JE: I live in Boulder, Colorado with my soon-to-be wife and two girls. I’m a total nature nerd and love spending my time biking, climbing, running or anything that gets me active in the outdoors.
Since an early age, I've known I wanted to spend my life making the world a better place. For me, doing that through protecting the environment was always the way. I’ve worked in climate policy in the public sector, and spent nearly a decade as a consultant in the energy sector, at the intersection of climate and finance. Finance has always been, to me, the way to unlock and scale solutions.
As someone who’s been focused on the existential threat of climate change throughout his career, I've been continuously disappointed with the lack of action despite the fact that human beings generally seem to want a cleaner, greener planet.
Then in 2021, I was providing an overview of the climate/crypto space for a family office client and that’s when I fell down the crypto rabbit hole. Realizing that value creation and positive outcomes are not necessarily at odds and that perhaps we as a species simply lacked the coordination tools to align these things was the antidote to my personal sense of climate defeat.
In this research, I met Fred and Michael in the early days of designing OFP. The seeming simplicity of MRV (Measurement, Reporting, and Verification) as a solution to unlock massive value and create a new, accessible global economy was intriguing and the team obviously had the vision to make a massive positive impact on the planet.
How did Open Forest get started?
OFP was conceptualized when our founders serendipitously met at the perfect intersection of their two seemingly disparate career paths. Luckily, they had a mutual friend who could make that happen.
Fred Fournier, our CEO, was running an NGO called On A Mission, which was supporting forest projects. He was seeing firsthand just how difficult and expensive it was to gather and share information from those projects, and the issues (and sometimes impossibility) with seeking verification through legacy channels like Verra.
At the same time, Michael Kelly, a crypto and economic-history guy by training, had been enlisted by the director of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) to create a basic whitepaper on the applications of blockchain to improve transparency in forest projects. The use case was that national sovereign funds were unwilling to invest in large-scale forestation projects due to a lack of visibility on the impact of their funding.
What prompted you to build a blockchain-based open ecosystem?
OFP exists today because we believe that open ecosystems are the way to go. Any time a system is designed that relies on a private individual or organization, you end up with a closed system that will always be questioned regarding what happens “behind closed doors.” With a public protocol, data is transparently provisioned and the entire world can “look under the hood” at the digital machinery that creates the credits.
The world really needs this level of radical transparency if it’s to begin valuing carbon at the level required to meet Paris agreement goals. In other words, it will be hard to get to $100/ton if there is an ingrained lack of trust surrounding the validity of the underlying value backing the credit. Having a public protocol means that questions can be answered by anyone, without asking for permission to see the data.
Why did you decide to build on the NEAR blockchain?
NEAR is low-key the best L1 blockchain technology in the industry, which means that it’s scalable, secure, and transaction fees are low and will stay low. With NEAR, we’re able to build something with great UX for all users. The programming language also enables a community of Layer-3 developers to propose and efficiently build solutions on top of us.
How is OFP working on forestation?
The concept of the OFP revolves around forestation. Can you tell us more about this?
OFP has bigger plans beyond just forests but our go-to-market is squarely based on the team’s core competency and a clear use case for our technology, which is very much forest-based.
Forest-carbon projects can be broken up into many different subcategories, each with its own methodology. Some of those are conservation, improved forest management, assisted natural regeneration, afforestation/reforestation.
OFP is choosing to first launch with afforestation/reforestation and will eventually move into mangroves followed by other methodologies. These specific project types involve planting new trees where they have not existed for at least 10 years prior. Why 10 years prior? We need to ensure that we aren’t incentivizing perverse outcomes where forest managers cut forests down simply to replant them for reforestation credits. This has happened in the past. We’ll ensure the historical record through the verification of openly accessible historical satellite data.
How does the protocol contribute toward digitizing forestation initiatives?
We digitize every stage of an initiative, except the actual trees. Data is collected at regular intervals, and pushed to the blockchain where a global network of decentralized validators review the data to either verify or reject. All validator activity goes on-chain. The data is infinitely re-discoverable and re-verifiable, and the resulting value is traceable to its provenance. We have some sweet tools launching in 2023 that’ll make the process of accessing this data and learning about projects on OFP very fun and easy.
How does OFP verify the various forestation projects across the globe?
We think of this network as a global immune system for malicious data. Companies and organizations with diverse technical knowhow and data analysis capabilities ranging from satellite, to AI, to LiDAR and statistical modeling will all participate in this antifragile network. The bigger the network, the better its output. Plus, the longer a project reports data on OFP, the stronger the outcome will be, due to the establishment of data historicity and trendlines.
These validators have an incentive structure that rewards them for calling out any anomalous data from any individual forest data upload. If the data looks good, then the incentive is to approve the data. It’s a unique process that creates an ever-strengthening network and 10-100x’s the level of verification over the old system.
In contrast, most data verification today happens behind the closed doors of single organizations who are paid by the project developers to “weigh in” and verify the data. It’s not a good look.
The future of Open Forest Protocol
Can you tell us about your long-term vision? What do the coming years look like for OFP?
Open Planet Protocol! Our core innovation is really a system to support permissionless, decentralized collection, verification, and issuance of value for earth-state data. While we’re applying this to forests right now, there’s no shortage of other earth-positive methodologies that require an MRV solution. In fact, no environmental credit of any kind will ever be created without MRV.
Our goal is to provide the best, most efficient open MRV system in the world and ultimately open this up such that all sorts data points from blue carbon (ocean-based solutions) to grasslands, peatlands, to blue whales and perhaps even biochar and direct air capture data can be collected, verified, and immutably recorded for a more trusted system. In this way our total addressable market is somewhat outrageous over the coming 10 years.
For now and for the next two-three years, we’re really focused on launching the full suite of products that includes not just MRV tooling, but also financial plugins both for project pre-financing, and for simplifying the offtake of the value we can create. We’re launching the whole end-to-end solution and then plugging that into the world’s financial inputs and offtake streams. It’s going to be an exciting decade for us.