Mapping The Decline Of Trees To Boost Solutions

From left: WEO CTO Charlotte Wirion is pictured with co-founder and CEO Imeshi Weerasinghe (Photo: © WEO)
From left: WEO CTO Charlotte Wirion is pictured with co-founder and CEO Imeshi Weerasinghe. (© WEO)

Luxembourg’s lush green forests, covering a third of the country, are among its biggest attractions. Yet trees are dying off at an alarming rate because of climate induced stresses. By mapping the decline, this Luxembourg startup is helping to be part of the solution. 

Six out of 10 trees in Luxembourg’s forests are seriously or severely damaged because of climate factors such as water stress, new data published over the summer revealed. Once a tree is damaged, experts estimate their death within four months. That is not only bad news for people who like to walk in forests. Trees also lock away carbon, which would otherwise form part of the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. And it’s not only trees that help the planet. 

“Grass is also really important. For example, if you don’t look after a grass field, and it becomes dry and not healthy, and it actually becomes a heat source instead of providing the benefits of cooling a city,” explains co-founder of WEO Imeshi Weerasinghe.

Affordable access to earth observation data on sustainability

After researching topics related to water resources management using remote sensing, three years ago, Weerasinghe and Charlotte Wirion founded WEO with the goal of making earth observation data related to sustainability more easily accessible and affordable. In 2019, they participated in the Fit 4 Start accelerator programme and since  have grown into a small startup with a big impact. 

“We take environmental analytics, among them water stress, using satellite imagery,” says Wirion. Open data is collected from European Space Agency and NASA satellites as well as other sources. Using their proprietary AI and deep learning driven technology, WEO enhances the imagery enabling them to regularly monitor vegetation coverage, be it in forests or on private land like gardens, on any given area. Having worked with a number of Luxembourg local authorities, the team confirms the decline of the country’s trees. 

“The main thing we want is to avoid further tree loss, especially in the more valuable trees which are older and have bigger canopies and provide more ecosystem services. But then, we also support the new plantations, rejuvenation of the forest. We help monitor that to succeed and have more resilient forests,” says Wirion. 

“The main thing we want is to avoid further tree loss, especially in the more valuable trees which are older and have bigger canopies and provide more ecosystem services. But then, we also support the new plantations, rejuvenation of the forest. We help monitor that to succeed and have more resilient forests” 

Charlotte Wirion, WEO co-founder and CTO

$17b market

The market for this kind of data among local government, estimated at $17b, is growing fast, driven by increased awareness and regulation. The COP28 United Arab Emirates Presidency will make water one of the critical priorities of the climate agenda at its autumn meeting of the world’s leaders. Its solutions include enhancing urban water resilience, bolstering water-resilient food systems, and conserving and restoring freshwater ecosystems. Because when the data pinpoints the risks to a city or commune, decision makers are empowered to take precautions.

“It can be that understanding of water stress before the dry season starts can help to push forward to allow irrigation in certain areas […] so that the tree loss is reduced during that period,” says Wirion, adding: “So it [the data] really supports the taking of concrete actions to remain resilient to keep the vegetation that exists alive and then to also support and provide additional measures.”

In the three years since launching in Luxembourg, WEO now has a seven-strong team that has expanded into Belgium. It is seeing demand grow from infrastructure managers like rail operators and utility companies. While it is looking to enter the French market, the startup is also in talks with the real estate, insurance and banking sectors to see how they can contribute to carbon trading project verification. Meanwhile, WEO also works with the Open Forest Protocol to help validate forest data claims.

Funding sources

Bootstrapped with some funding raised as part of the Fit 4 Start programme, WEO’s work is funded through ESA projects and customer revenue.

“We’d had some good feedback and market validation from our clients in the government sector but now we’re looking to better understand the needs in other sectors as well and get some market validation there,” says Wirion.

WEO Combines Open-Source Data And AI For A Greener Planet

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