Selling Sustainability.  Blockchain Marketing and the Future of Green Fintech

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October 18, 2021

The global Green Technology and Sustainability market size to grow from USD 11.2 billion in 2020 to USD 36.6 billion by 2025, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 26.6% during the forecast period.  Smart contracts running on blockchains can unlock new ways to fight climate change and to cope with its impact. This approach relies on networks of ‘oracles’ – entities that enable blockchains to absorb and interact with real-world data.  Digital solutions can support a low-carbon journey throughout all aspects of DeFi and traditional economy facets; such as smart currencies, structures, transportation and services.  Beyond the described carbon trading market, distributed ledger technologies, including blockchain, can enhance international and intersectoral collaboration.

Blockchain and Businesses Going Green

There is a growing acceptance that business has a role to play in combatting climate change. The desire to accelerate a transition to a low-carbon economy is real and is shaping transformation across many sectors. Digitisation and sustainability are firmly at the centre of change in the financial services sector. The global value of assets where investment decisions are driven by environmental, social and governance data reached $40 trillion in 2020, having almost doubled over four years.  Up until now, companies focussed on whether climate change was going to impact on the business, now the important question is if the company is going to impact on climate change.

The idea of blockchain facilitating environmental improvements might seem fanciful, even outlandish; however the following are 3 key ways how smart solutions can create sustainable change.

  1. Regenerative agriculture

One of the most important ways in which smart contracts can bring everyday people into the fight against climate change is by enabling regenerative agriculture programmes. These include efforts to incentivize communities around the world to reduce their carbon footprints through more sustainable land-use practices, usually a combination of planting trees and conservation.

Smart contracts that can interact with real-world data make it possible to automatically issue rewards to people who steward these important tracts of land. For example, the Green World Campaign, in collaboration with Cornell University’s Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Contracts (IC3), is building smart contracts that use satellite data to automatically dispense rewards to people who successfully regenerate bodies of land by increasing tree cover, improving soil, and more. Payouts happen when oracles pull data from satellite images to trigger smart contracts built on a blockchain, guaranteeing that people on the ground earn rewards fairly and transparently.

  1. Conscious consumption

Smart contracts can also empower environmentally conscious individuals and organizations. For example, if an individual successfully triggered a reforestation smart contract, they could be paid in a form of tokenized carbon credit, which could in turn be sold to charitable organizations, crowdfunding campaigns, or even companies seeking to prove they have made a green impact. Because these tokenized carbon credits can only be created if satellites or IoT devices report meaningful reforestation to a smart contract, these organizations can verify that their funds have actually made a real impact.

Smart contracts can also give environmentally conscious consumers more options in terms of their energy consumption. Decentralized energy grids like the Brooklyn Microgrid Project are using smart contracts to give consumers the ability to produce and trade solar electricity with their neighbours through an exchange that uses a blockchain as a coordination mechanism. The ability to buy and sell solar energy credits between neighbours can reduce energy transportation costs as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

While many consumers are already changing their consumption habits on their own, a wider societal shift in behaviour will likely require aligning financial incentives with more sustainable consumer decisions. Through the use of smart contracts connected to real-world data, consumers can automatically receive payments or penalties based on the impact of their consumption habits, creating behavioural changes that simply would not have occurred through education alone. A project called NetObjex is installing IoT devices in select hotels to keep track of a guest’s water and energy consumption over the course of their visit. Through oracles, smart contracts can interact with the resulting data about a hotel visit, and automatically calculate and reward guests based on their consumption metrics.

  1. Hedging risk with crop insurance

Climate change is already shifting weather patterns worldwide. Farmers across the globe, the vast majority of whom are entirely uninsured, are especially vulnerable to these changes in weather patterns, be it rainfall, drought, wind, and more. Despite the fact that 75% of agricultural risks remain uninsured, traditional insurance companies have to-date failed to provide adequate coverage to small-time farmers in developing countries. As a result, most live very unstable lives. Bad weather conditions can destroy farmers’ financial well-being, resulting in the uprooting of families and the destruction and abandonment of farmland. Should the impacts of climate change continue to accelerate, there’s no doubt that the resulting instability will disproportionately affect farmers.

Fortunately, smart contracts that can take into account these changing weather conditions via oracles can offer a solution, or at the very least a way for a person with little means to hedge against significant risk. For example, insurance projects like Arbol and Etherisc offer smart contract-powered crop insurance to farmers across the world. Using smart contracts, farmers can take out a policy on their small crop of land, set predefined conditions for contract execution (such as a certain amount of rainfall), and then rely on oracles to monitor weather patterns. If the oracle network reports a certain metric has been met, the farmer automatically gets a payout. Through smart contracts that can speak to data about the weather through oracles, a farmer can now protect their financial future with nothing more than a smartphone.

Open Earth Foundation seeks to complement the GST by empowering concerned citizens to tackle an old problem via a new technological medium – NFTs. Thus, wealthy art collectors and celebrities can get skin in the game of the hot new art NFT craze while also contributing to carbon reduction and climate transparency.  Needless to say, self-awareness is critical to understanding the day-to-day actions that give rise to climate change. To this end, an upcoming month-long awareness campaign will incentivize NFT and crypto stakeholders to neutralize their climate impact in any way they can. The Open Earth Foundation will participate in the #carbondrop campaign which culminates, fittingly, on April 22 – Earth Day.

Green Cryptocurrency Trends

The term ‘Fintech’ has been widely used in recent times and generally describes technologies that strive to improve and automate the delivery and use of financial services to clients. The concept of ‘Green Fintech’, however, has not yet had such a global reach and while it does not have a universally recognised definition, it typically describes companies or initiatives which have a positive impact on the environment, e.g. resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions or greater biodiversity.

The ‘Green Fintech’ ecosystem is rapidly growing across the globe but is still young. Many Fintech companies are actively shaping this fundamental shift to sustainability from planting trees to offering fossil-fuel-free investment options. Interest in Green Fintech solutions is steadily increasing with innovations across sustainable and competitive tech-driven financial products services.

For instance, Bitcoin and Ethereum are the world’s most energy-intensive blockchains, a consequence of the revenue model wherein miners connect power-hungry ASICs and crunch numbers in a race to find new blocks and claim rewards. While much of the energy used to mine cryptocurrency comes from renewable sources, it would be disingenuous to assert that Proof of Work blockchains are a net good for the environment. And no amount raised by fundraisers for carbon sequestration can fix this.

The solution to blockchain’s energy problem – and specifically to that attributed to NFTs – may lie on other networks. The majority of blockchains that have sprung up since Ethereum have utilized Proof of Stake, a low-energy alternative to securing blockchains in which validators lock – or stake – assets into a smart contract as an incentive to act ethically. Uphold the network’s consensus rules and validators will be rewarded with tokens, just like the miners who safeguard Proof of Work chains.

Ethereum itself is in the process of transitioning to Proof of Stake, but the process is complex and convoluted. And in the meantime, miners continue crunching billions of computations per second to secure the Ethereum network using Proof of Work.

Convincing crypto users to switch to low-energy alternatives was always going to be a hard sell. However, users now have a more tangible incentive for transitioning to Proof of Stake chains: money. Put simply, Ethereum is expensive to use. Demand for block space, fueled by DeFi and NFTs, has pushed gas prices to record highs. With retail users priced out of conducting onchain trades, which routinely now surpass $100 per transaction, Proof of Stake chains that once lay dormant or under development are starting to gain traction

NFTs As a Force for Green

Can NFTs support real climate change marketing and pr campaigns?

Individual pieces of crypto art, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), are at least partially responsible for the millions of tons of planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions generated by the cryptocurrencies used to buy and sell them. Some artists — including those who have already benefited from the craze — think it’s a problem that can be easily solved. Others think the proposed solutions are a pipe dream.

As the world is going digital, with virtual displacing physical, NFTs have emerged as the solution to a variety of problems. NFTs are capable of aligning incentives between artists and fans; facilitating provable scarcity; transforming e-gaming; and powering a burgeoning economy for digital collectibles.  Because NFTs are issued and traded on energy-intensive blockchains that consume vast amounts of power, the argument goes, they are directly responsible for environmental degradation. Energy-intensive blockchains like Ethereum (albeit less intense than bitcoin) are used for the smart contracts required to mint and trade the NFTs, and create a direct carbon intensity associated to them that is climate culpable.

Not everyone is convinced that NFTs are single-handedly blowing a hole in the planet. One group of artists believes that the opposite is true. Not only has the carbon impact of NFTs been grossly overstated, but when issued on low-energy blockchains, they can become a force for good, supporting a thriving market for digital art while offsetting carbon consumption.  However, since NFTs contribute a comparatively small percentage of all Ethereum transactions, plus given the immaturity of the market, it’s encouraging that efforts are already being made to institute healthy environmental practices. Beeple has already revealed that his work will be carbon neutral or negative moving forward, and as pressure builds from environmental activists, it’s likely that NFT platforms – as well as artists and even buyers – will follow suit. That could mean carbon offsetting, a commitment to more energy-friendly blockchains, financial incentives for artists whose work is carbon-neutral – the list goes on.

Final Thoughts:

The devastating impact of climate change is moving at an alarming speed. Making aspirational commitments to sustainability — or worse, denying the problem — isn’t enough. The blockchain industry needs real targets, collective action, innovation and shared accountability.  However, solutions can be practical, market-driven and create value and growth for all. Together with climate advocates, clean tech industry leaders and global finance decision-makers, crypto can unite to position blockchain as the most sustainable path forward in creating a green, digital financial future.

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