Greenhouse Pioneer: Tom Crowther, The Crowther Lab

Climate change and biodiversity loss are among the two greatest threats facing society and are intrinsically linked.

However, a lack of accurate information means we have very limited understanding of global ecosystems and their potential for cooling the planet. For years, reforestation and conservation initiatives have often been displaced and piecemeal – with no detailed understanding of how to achieve the greatest positive impact on climate.

Now, with latest developments in machine learning and Artificial Intelligence, we are at the dawn of a big data revolution that can transform understanding of the living world.

The Crowther Lab, a team of scientists studying the ecological processes that influence climate change, is at the forefront of that movement. By pairing top-down satellite imagery with ground-sourced datasets of forest trees and biodiversity, Crowther Lab is able to create interactive maps which provide critical layers of ecological data.

1. Tell us, in 20 words or fewer, about Crowther Lab – what’s its mission? 

To become the hub for global ecological information to guide effective nature-based climate change solutions anywhere around the world.

2. What drives you? 

I have always been driven by my interest in how nature works. It is because of the threat climate change poses to biodiversity that I chose to become a climate change ecologist.

Global restoration has never been prioritized or even taken really seriously as a scientifically relevant climate change solution; there was simply no quantitative information about its global potential. Over the last couple of years, working with some of the best ecologists around the world, we’ve been able to change this. We mapped the world’s current forests, showed where forests could be restored, and uncovered that global restoration has not only the potential to decelerate climate change, but to offset carbon emissions almost entirely, making it one the most comprehensive climate change solutions to date.

At the moment, millions of people are engaged in the fight against climate change. I am entirely driven by the idea that, if we all harness that energy and put it towards common goals like global restoration, we can undoubtedly solve the problem. But this necessitates that people learn (1) what is possible, and (2) how to do it.

3. What is your greatest achievement to date? 

When I was working as a Postdoc at Yale University, I lead a study that mapped all the trees worldwide – our results showing that there are currently 3 trillion trees on Earth – and published the findings in the leading international journal Nature. This received overwhelming international media attention and became the 11th most widely publicised scientific study of the decade at that time.

As a direct result, the UN’s ‘Billion Tree’ campaign has become the ‘Trillion Tree’ campaign. But most importantly, this first quantitative model of the global forest system gave me the tools, experience and funding to set up an entirely new kind of science lab at the world’s leading university for environmental research, ETH Zurich.

Our research lab is entirely unique because of our large size, focus on holistic findings, in-house communications team, and commitment to generating societally-relevant global information. By bringing together this interdisciplinary group of young experts from around the world, we are now studying all aspects of ecosystems that regulate the carbon cycle – including plants, fungi and bacteria in the soil – for the very first time.

We are currently mapping natural ecosystems and how they could potentially function if we restored them effectively, so that thousands of restoration organisations know what species to plant or what soils to focus on. And we are still working closely with the thousands of restoration organisations in the ‘Trillion Tree Campaign’ so that they can be effective.

4. What are you working on that’s getting you fired up and excited?

I am particularly excited about the fact that our research is not only published in top international scientific journals, but can be directly implemented by citizens without specific scientific knowledge.

There are 300 Gt carbon extra in the atmosphere as a result of human activity and this is warming the planet. 2/3rds of this carbon can be captured in trees that could be restored in degraded lands around the world and the rest could be captured by the soils below these trees.

We know that, if done according to our global ecological information, this nature-based solution would cost ~$300 Billion. I would never have expected that our science could reveal such optimistic news: global restoration and thereby climate change mitigation is undoubtedly possible if society gets behind a single unified goal.

5. Where do you want to take Crowther Lab next? 

Now that we have global maps of forests, showing how much carbon exists across the world and how much carbon could be captured if we restored those ecosystems, we need to make this a reality. We need to improve the tools that can inform decision making.

This involves three main areas of research: (i) generating global ecological maps to show all of the other components of the ecosystems that are necessary for identifying which species to plant where or which types of soils should be restored; (ii) generating a more detailed understanding of what the climate impact will be, and (iii) economic analyses to evaluate how much it will cost (or save us) if we restore ecosystems across every location that is available.

6. What can we, as individuals, do to make a difference?

Our research shows that the Earth could house an additional 1.2 trillion trees. This may seem too big a number of trees to be planted, but 14 billion were planted by 70,000 children alone since the start of the UN’s Billion Tree campaign.

If everyone who had walked in the climate strike marches over the last couple of months had planted trees instead, we could be well on the way of achieving 1.2 trillion trees planted.

There are simple and straightforward ways for individuals to make a difference and contribute to offsetting climate change:

  1. Planting trees and helping to restore ecosystems directly.
  2. Supporting one of the thousands of organizations and NGOs across the globe that focus on the restoration of natural ecosystems
  3. Investing money in companies that actively support or promote restoration across the globe.

7. Can you recommend a life- or game-changing book for our readers? 

I find ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson very inspiring. It was published in the 1960’s and has significantly advanced the global environmental movement by showing how anthropogenic actions affect nature. The next important step in this movement – and hence the next generation of game-changing literature – will focus on the quantitative impact of global restoration.

8. What do you listen to when you’re cooking dinner?

A couple of years ago, I discovered audiobooks and now, as soon as I leave work, I pop my headphones in and start a novel. I just recently finished the Harry Potter books – which I listened to while doing grocery shopping, walking in the woods, and cooking dinner.

9. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? 

In school, I used to a be a bit of a difficult student. I was in this typical cycle of not receiving great feedback on my school work, which in turn further decreased my motivation to spend time studying or even paying too much attention in class. This theme continued into university, where I had also become known as a bit of a troublemaker and was even thrown out of a lecture room once with 300 people watching me having to leave. When the same professor who had reprimanded me accompanied my group on a field trip, I thought this could only mean bad news and tried to keep my head down. But instead of writing me off as a failing student, he gave me one simple piece of advice that transformed my career: Just try to enjoy the things you are doing. If you are not enjoying it, try to find the enjoyment in it or focus on something that you do enjoy. Success does not equal happiness or fulfilment, but passion does.

10. Can you leave us with who’d be your Eco Hero?

I have always been fascinated by nature and the magic of life. As a child, I could spend hours in the garden looking at patterns on tree trunks, bugs and lizards. Now, as an adult, I get to follow the same unaltered curiosity with my research of the Earth’s natural ecosystems and my research being mentioned by my childhood hero, David Attenborough, in his recent documentary “Our Planet” is completely mind-blowing. He is an absolute icon and took me on a journey around the globe and into the most captivating facets of life on Earth on more than one rainy afternoon while growing up.

If you are a pioneer involved in creating more sustainable future and have a story to tell, we would love to hear from you.