Why Tech-Minded Climate Groups See COVID-19 as a Trial Run for Massive Change

Reaching the Paris Agreement's lofty climate goals will require the decentralization of decision-making at all levels, say INATBA and others.

AccessTimeIconApr 16, 2020 at 6:46 p.m. UTC
Updated May 9, 2023 at 3:07 a.m. UTC
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Thanks to our current state of lockdown, global carbon emissions are down somewhere between 20 and 40 percent, according to various estimates. But that’s merely a fraction of the reductions sought by governments around the world as part of the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change.

To put things in perspective, many of the most-polluting countries must reduce their emissions by 90 percent.

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  • It’s well-known that the digitization of everything is key to reaching these gargantuan 2050 goals. But how will a new (and rather hyped) type of database make this happen?

    It will involve the decentralization of decision-making at all levels, says Tom Baumann, co-chair of the Climate Action group at the International Association for Trusted Blockchain Applications (INATBA), which recently launched a COVID Task Force in conjunction with the European Commission and University College London.

    Climate change, while not as immediately pressing as the COVID-19 pandemic, also requires a radical change in our lifestyles.

    “Already we sense the feeling of how our lives are changing – not in a way we would like right now. And don’t forget, these [Paris Agreement] goals are, frankly, a starting point. So that's going to require a lot of social and cultural buy-in,” said Baumann, who also co-chairs the Hyperledger climate working group.

    Changing the way decisions are made within society is what Baumann refers to as one of the “non-technical aspects” of blockchain. These radical changes will come about by “allowing individuals to vote with their wallets using programmable money,” and providing “trusted and transparent frameworks for accounting climate actions,” he said.

    Automatic for the people

    Looking ahead, cryptocurrencies and digital tokens are evolving in ways that can incorporate automated internal governance of common resources and encourage collaboration among communities. 

    To frame this as a question relating to climate action: “How can financial and non-financial value be incorporated into digital currencies that promote, not simply the sustainable production, but the sustainable consumption patterns that are consistent with the decarbonized or net-zero lifestyle?” asks Baumann. “It’s about being able to empower individuals to be more effective decision-makers.”

    Blockchains can keep track of scarce digital units of value, which can be aligned in micro-economic systems to achieve common goals and favorable outcomes for communities. For example, a government scheme could reward users of solar energy with digital tokens that can then be used to pay fares on greener forms of public transport.

    But decentralizing a massive piece of critical infrastructure like the national electricity grid of a developed country is a bewildering prospect.

    Irene Adamski, co-chair of INATBA’s Energy Working Group, said blockchain projects sprouting up all over the place are creating innovation by increments, and this is better suited to addressing the problem than a single, heavily funded attempt at an overhaul.

    “We are now seeing different ways of socializing the cost of energy in a decentralized manner by way of incremental changes here and an experiment or a sandbox over there,” said Adamski, a blockchain adviser to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

    “The levers are very sensitive so there is not a lot of room for error. But using the precision of computing technology to handle that in a decentralized and automated manner, possibly involving artificial intelligence, will give a lot more room for maneuverability,” she said.

    Such ambitious and transformative tasks will get a shot in the arm thanks to coronavirus, Adamski said. “In Germany we are seeing a lot of bureaucratic barriers tumbling down as people jump and say they need solutions now,” she added.

    Small is beautiful

    From a climate change perspective, global supply chains have become too vast and complex for our own good.

    These could be curtailed by changing consumer behavior on the ground, and the easiest lever to pull is pricing, said Adamski.

    “A precise and robust system for pricing and tracking carbon emissions, built using blockchain technology, will change patterns of consumption,” she said. “Exotic fruit or meat flown half way across the world would become much more expensive. The same goes for very drastic distortions of the market where a train ticket across Europe can be much more expensive than a flight.”

    This involves a recalibration of capitalism’s underlying metrics of ever-increasing growth and consumption. It’s an old idea, fast growing in popularity again, that “small is beautiful,” to quote the philosopher and economist E.F. Schumacher (sometimes called the grandfather of the green movement).  

    Over the course of the last century, humans have been busy liquidating Earth’s natural capital in order to sustain levels of consumption that are far beyond planetary bounds, said Baumann. There is now need for “de-growth,” a 180-degree turn from capitalism.

    “I’m not suggesting that there be no airplanes in the sky or economic activity,” he said. “Of course there's going to be a move to zero-emissions energy-powered transport and buildings. But also our levels of activity – like taking ten trips a year – that's not reasonable. There will be material and other trade-offs.”

    A looming coronavirus catastrophe in the developing world will expose how completely unsustainable the global economic system has become, said Andrew Heath, external engagement manager at Practical Action, a charity formed by Schumacher in the late 1960s. 

    While a lockdown in the developed world has seen supply chains creaking, what happens to people who need to earn money every day to buy food, or small farmers who need to get hold of seeds to continue to sow and harvest, said Heath. 

    “There are stories of farmers having to throw away milk because they can’t get to market, or cull chicks because they can't get hold of feed. In the Global South, there’s every chance of supply chains falling down completely. We would argue for more focus on local supply chains and the need for these to be stronger than ever,” he said.

    World War Zero

    In addition to the decentralization and realignment of our global economic systems, blockchain can also keep a check on our progress by accounting for the planet’s shared carbon budget

    In this case, blockchain would ensure there is scientific integrity behind any natural capital accounting, said Baumann. “People are concerned about the truthfulness or credibility of sustainability claims. If blockchain can provide irrefutable transparent accountability then that will encourage people to have greater faith and willingness,” he said.

    Baumann suggests tokenizing the carbon budget as a mass balance that the scientists say we should respect: If there are 400 billion tons that are available and 8 billion people, that's 50 tons per person.

    The question then becomes how to allocate that capital to each person, taking into consideration the fact that a very small percentage of the world’s population created the climate change problem to date. 

    “It’s a really deep cultural mindshift. I often equate it to something like a religious conversion level of commitment if we are really going to achieve those goals,” said Baumann. “But living small is beautiful, to go back to some of the 1960s and ‘70s environmental messages.”

    Adamski’s favorite term for the climate action debate is “World War Zero,” whereby a similar effort to that seen during WWII is required to successfully preserve a livable planet. 

    “Coronavirus is showing us right now that we are capable of a lot,” she said.


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