Add Climate Change to the List of Things Blockchain Is Supposed to Solve

3 min

It’s no secret how to minimize man-made climate change: Reduce greenhouse gases. That’s the intent behind carbon credits in the cap-and-trade market and climate actions like planting trees. But there’s a major accounting issue. How do you ensure a polluter is truthful about things like how much they’ve reduced their emissions or how many trees they’ve had planted?

Some in the tech world think “blockchain” is the answer — and not just to the accounting problem, but to man-made climate change itself.

Blockchain is the hot technological tool du jour, following on the heels of big data, the internet of things and artificial intelligence. It’s known as the technology behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrency. And that’s where there’s a bit of irony in all this. Digital mining for cryptocurrency now accounts for a ton of energy usage. It's hard to say exactly how much. But a study in Joule suggests it consumes about as much energy per year as the entire country of Ireland.

Regardless, there’s no end to the number of things people are saying blockchain can solve: poverty, financial crises, health insurance bureaucracy, human rights abuses, elder care, cancer, and now, climate change. Every day PR teams pitch increasingly ambitious (some might say implausible) applications to journalists, like how blockchain can improve elder care, prevent financial crises or cure cancer. Wired compiled a list of 187 PR pitches about blockchain applications.

Until a year or two ago, no one really talked about blockchain and climate action. Now it’s routinely the subject of papers and panels. Climate scientists are debating how blockchain can help with something like accountability in the carbon credit market, renewable energy production and carbon soil sequestration. The list goes on and on.

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Tom Baumann co-chairs the Climate Change Coalition. He led a recent event in San Francisco to spread awareness about blockchain. So ... What is blockchain? If you ask someone like Bauman, you often get an answer like this:

“Blockchain, or distributed ledger technology, really references a larger ecosystem of technologies like artificial intelligence, big data and the internet of things. Those technologies, coupled with the blockchain technologies, are very synergistic.”

OK, synergy aside, the distributed ledger is the key element of blockchain. With blockchain, the ledger, or record of transactions, is not held by a central authority, like a bank, but instead on the individual computers of everyone on the blockchain. It’s like an accounting book that everyone can see and where every transaction is recorded. This shared accounting creates transparency and verifiability.

New companies, like Silicon Valley-based Nori, are built around blockchain’s transparency. Paul Gambill is the company’s CEO, and here’s how he describes the company: “Nori is a blockchain-based marketplace that makes it easier for people to pay for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

The company plans to launch by the end of the year. Nori hopes companies in the cap-and-trade market will pay for carbon-removal credits. Gambill used to be a software product manager. He carries with him the tech world’s habit of making grand pitches.

“It’s our intention to build the infrastructure that makes it possible to reverse climate change,” Gambill says. “We want to make the whole climate change problem just go away.”

Doesn’t everyone? Scientists like Douglas McCauley surely do. “I wish it were that easy,” he says.

McCauley is a researcher at UC Santa Barbara. He says the danger of Silicon Valley’s big-promise, disrupt-everything ethos is that it suggests there’s a quick fix out there for something like climate change.

As anyone who works on climate change knows, ways to address the problem will be really hard to implement — like getting countries to cut emissions or people to stop driving cars that pollute.

McCauley says before blockchain, artificial intelligence and big data were the hot new things. They were in the headline of every other paper or panel on climate change. These have proved to be valuable tools for climate research, but in each case McCauley says it took scientists a few years to cut through the hype.

“We need to look past the shiny thing,” McCauley says, “and start talking about exactly how to apply it usefully.”

McCauley says blockchain could help, especially with the transparent accounting of something like carbon credits. Katharine Mach, a climate scientist at Stanford, agrees. She says blockchain is interesting, but there’s a danger in assuming it, or any other new technology for that matter, will be some kind of miracle cure for climate change.

“It’s essentially can-kicking ethics,” Mach says, “where we won’t be putting into place the solutions that are actually more important to make the entirety of the problem more solvable.”

With the clock ticking on climate change, there’s little time to waste sorting facts from hype.

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