Carbonbase Founder Max Song Is Providing Us With The Tools To Reduce Our Environmental Impact. Here’s How
Max Song is taking a data scientist’s approach to tackling climate change. He is the founder of Carbonbase, a company that allows people to calculate their carbon footprint and offset it, offering them earn rewards for doing so. It also consults with companies that want to reduce their carbon footprint, including helping them to track their emissions using blockchain technology.
Born in the US, Song moved between there and China several times during his childhood, a period he says helped to instill resilience in him from early in life. An academic high flyer, he conducted genetic engineering research at the NASA Ames research centre; worked as a teaching fellow at Singularity University, which he says “opened my eyes to all the crazy things that technology was doing to various industries”; and studied at the prestigious Brown University, where he launched its first startup accelerator. He also took two years off from university to work at a variety of startups in London, Paris and Silicon Valley.
“I spent two years looking at investments in the blockchain sector,” he says. “It helped me to investigate what blockchain was useful for and whether we could find some of these use cases in the environmental sector.
“Blockchain allows you to have a unique identity for each person, which means that you can incentivise them to make improvements. You see a lot about play to earn, where people play games to earn money [usually in the form of cryptocurrency]. How about reduce to earn? I was interested to see whether this could be used to address climate change.”
He first founded a consultancy to help large companies in Asia use blockchain effectively. One of his clients, environmental services giant Veolia, asked him to provide training on the technology, then to propose and build an industrial blockchain system.
He then launched Carbonbase in early 2020—not the most auspicious time to launch anything, except maybe a mask factory or home tutoring service. “The first year was quite a challenge, but it was a good crucible for our existence. You become more heightened and agile in terms of how you make the business survive.”
Although the consumer carbon calculator and offsets are the most visible public face of the company, it’s in its work with corporations where it makes its money—and where Song believes there’s the opportunity to make the biggest impact. “We realise that large companies are the ones who are prepared to pay to become carbon neutral.”
Without carbon credits, fighting climate change is all about charity—it’s a nice thing to do
— Max Song
Among its achievements, the company has helped shipping company Wah Kwong become Hong Kong’s first carbon-neutral such business. It has also recently worked with the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest power station, to build carbon emissions tracking software, as well as other clients in sectors including transport, real estate, finance and shipping.
“Hong Kong has a really interesting future as a hub of green finance and using the capital markets to drive companies to do more about climate change and ESG,” he says. “More Chinese companies, afraid of US regulations, will be listing in Hong Kong, and that will drive demand from Chinese corporates.
“It’s very interesting, how you map this crazy world of institutional finance onto the climate change question. You perform this alchemy in finance: you assign an economic value to something that’s valuable to society, but that doesn’t have a price. Without carbon credits, fighting climate change is all about charity—it’s a nice thing to do. Now you can make a business case for it. It’s what we’re trying to do through Carbonbase: how do we use blockchain to help create a carbon registry servicing China, India and Indonesia? They account for about 27 percent of global emissions, versus 17 percent for the US and Europe, so the opportunity to serve Asian clients is huge.”
See also: ESG Disclosure: From Risk Management Necessity to Ethical Imperative
Of course, the effectiveness Carbonbase’s work is severely diminished if the offsets don’t work like they’re supposed to, something that’s been an ongoing problem for the industry. As Song puts it, “There are questions around validity and permanence”—the latter meaning that just because a forest is still standing now, doesn’t mean it will be in a few months’ time. His company counters these challenges, he adds, with a rigorous programme of due diligence on each of the offsets it offers: it only works with offsets that are listed on registries, which monitor and certify their effectiveness, conducting extensive site visits and focusing on projects with high social impact development ratings.
With the use of technological advances such as satellite tracking, Song expects the process of verifying offsets to become far quicker, potentially taking as little as 24 hours—advancing one step further his ongoing mission: making it easier for people to do the right thing.
Read more Social Impact content.