At the 21stUnited Nations Climate Conference (COP21) in 2015, countries around the world gave themselves a goal: to not allow the earth to warm beyond 1.5° C (2.7° F) between then and the year 2100. But is there any path forward to realizing this goal? One way to truly limit CO2e emissions is to rehydrate peatlands (also known as “wetlands”). This would allow the CO2e from the atmosphere to be stored in soil, thereby capping any potential increase in global temperature. In Germany, for example, most of the wetlands currently used for agricultural purposes have been artificially wrung dry. But they could, if rehydrated, yield considerably higher profits—and effectively fight back against climate change.
This much more sustainable and profitable use of these peatlands is exactly what ZukunftMoor, a start-up co-founded by WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management alumni Julia Kasper (Bsc, 2014; MSc, 2020) and Florian Forstmann (Diploma, 1996) in 2022, is gunning for. This duo is driven by a desire to protect the environment while also providing farmers an attractive agricultural alternative. They are convinced that there is gold in “paludiculture” (i.e., the agricultural use of wetlands), far more than could be found with dairy cows or in cornfields. And now, they’re looking for greater support for their start-up, which recently received the Businessplan-Wettbewerbs Berlin-Brandenburg (BPW) Sustainability Award.
1. With ZukunftMoor, you’re trying to expedite the rehydration of German peatlands so they can be put to more sustainable use, i.e., through paludiculture, which sounds quite innovative. How would that work? And why do you feel it could become a serious economic alternative for today’s farmers?
Julia Kasper (JK): Peatlands truly are game changers in the battle to stop the climate crisis. As their name suggests, they hold peat—and therefore carbon—under a layer of water. The problem is that in Germany, we’ve dried up 95% of our peatlands. And without that hydration, the carbon and the nitrogen from the ground bind with the oxygen in our atmosphere, resulting in carbon dioxide [CO2] and nitrous oxide [N2O]. The solution lies in rehydration. At the crux of all of this is the farming industry, which uses 80% of these dried peatlands, and today’s farmers don’t have any motivation to rehydrate their land. In other words, they’ll rewet their land once they are able to earn at least as much (if not more) as they do with dairy or corn.
Florian Forstmann (FF): This is where paludiculture, or the use of wetlands for agricultural purposes, comes into play. Renewable raw materials, such as reeds for insulation, natural fibers, and sphagnum moss, can be cultivated on these peatlands. That’s better than harvesting peat, which does harm to the environment. To make Germany climate-neutral, the use of wetlands has to be entirely restructured. The faster farmers can switch to paludiculture, the more diverse and future-proof their operations will be. But to make that reality, we have to build up the value chains and prove that there is money to be earned here.
2. That could be a real win-win situation. On the one hand, emissions would be reduced by a considerable amount, and, on the other, farmers would be able to conduct even better business. What results are you expecting for climate protection in Germany? And how difficult is it to rehydrate a bog?
FF: If we were to rehydrate all of our dried peatlands today, we would lower greenhouse gas emissions in Germany by 7.5% in one swoop. That works out to about 25 times the amount caused by domestic air travel. In fact, dried peatlands account for almost 40% of all CO2e produced in agriculture. With our approach, we can prove that climate protection and economics go hand in hand. Transforming these peatlands would be similar to the move away from coal. Paludiculture would allow us to create new jobs and keep them in peatlands, rather than using them for dying economic structures. The road there may be tricky, but it’s one we need to follow. And if we look at the global potential, the effects would be even greater. In fact, 1.9 gigatons, about 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions, come from drained peatlands.
JK: Rehydration is, on its face, a simple process: You need to turn off the pumps, fill in the trenches, or remove any drainage systems. This not only stops greenhouse gas emissions, but also keeps water in the region. And that’s a major win for local microclimates in times of record-breaking heat!
But for this to work, we have to get the local people on board. In some cases, a belief that the grounds have to stay dry has been passed down from generation to generation. And for that time, that was the right choice. But for today’s peatlands, things need to be rethought and reversed. There’s already a certain level of awareness about this in many areas.
3. The topic has also started making the rounds in the government. Four million euro has been made available through the Aktionsprogramm Natürlicher Klimaschutz [Initiative for Natural Climate Protection] to restore and strengthen organic ecosystems. Although peatlands are a priority, rehydration efforts in Germany are progressing far too slowly for the nation to achieve domestic climate goals by 2030. How would you like to speed things up?
FF: Policymakers have recognized that hydration efforts so far have moved too slowly. If we convert into areas the targets agreed upon by the federal and state governments, we see we would have to rehydrate roughly 250,000 hectares of land [617,700 acres] by 2030. That’s roughly five times the size of Lake Constance. But we will, unfortunately, fall short of this goal, as only about 2,000 ha [4,900 ac] are rehydrated annually. Even to meet the goal by 2045, scientists say we would need to rehydrate 50,000 ha [123,500 ac] a year. That’s a gap of 96% before we’re in compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement. We want to counteract this. By proving how profitable wet agriculture is, we’re giving landowners a new perspective to rehydrate their lands. And in the process, we’re helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that come from the dried peatlands.
JK: It’s just like how it was with biogas plants. Once farmers saw how much money their colleagues were making with them, they went and set up their own. To realize that same effect, we’re going out and starting pilot programs in the wetlands. The next point of focus for us is cultivating sphagnum moss to be used as a base for soil. In doing so, we’ll be accelerating the soil industry’s move away from peat. Later, we’ll scale this up, domestically and abroad, through other paludi-products. Really, we’re trying to kickstart the whole paludiculture movement in Germany. It’s our goal to turn the northern part of the country into the European epicenter for wet farming.
4. The two of you have something in common aside from being the co-founders of ZukunftMoor. That is, you both graduated from WHU. How did you meet each other? And, in your opinion, what possibilities does the entrepreneurial ecosystem at WHU bring to the table?
JK: WHU’s start-up ecosystem has an incredible value for us founders. That’s something I had already experienced firsthand when founding my first company holzgespür. And it was WHU’s network again that led me to ZukunftMoor. The combination of entrepreneurship and focus on climate protection is something that spoke to me immediately. I’m very much at home with the cause and with the team.
FF: The Entrepreneurship Center also plays an important role here. Thanks to Max Eckel and his team, there are several connections to be made and information to be shared. In fact, it was thanks to a tip from Max that I was able to link up with Julia.
5. Your company shows that impact and profitability can harmonize. How has WHU influenced you in this regard?
FF: WHU teaches students to have an entrepreneurial outlook. And we’re looking to the herculean challenge posed by the climate crisis. We’re convinced that “entrepreneurial solutions” and “impact” go well together. And I’m a huge fan of the term “enkelfähig”* here, which I believe was coined by Haniel. It beautifully expresses that profitability and impact together need not be paradoxical.
JK: I think it’s very important that awareness of sustainable business models continue its upward momentum through clubs like SensAbility or the curricula at WHU. The school’s alumni have a strong influence on the start-up ecosystem in Germany. And, just as the digital transformation of our economy is a crucial factor for the future, so too is its ecological transformation. This is where green and social start-ups can make a pivotal contribution to our economy, society, and environment. WHU alumni, and the education they’ve received from the school, could be a recipe for success here.
Editor’s note: A person who is “enkelfähig” (literally “kin-able”) is someone who always considers and strives to create value for future generations.