Blockchain and environmental protection
Blockchain is in search of a killer app that will firmly demonstrate the utility of a decentralized and trusted data ledger and show that its value is more than a financial fad. Something that can propel the technology from the depths of the esoteric and beyond the hands of early adopters.
Consumer-friendly apps might be nice, at least it would might make blockchain and cryptocurrencies more approachable, like what Google or Amazon did for the internet.
But what if blockchain’s killer app isn’t about shopping or commerce or advertising? What if it’s more functional, but less glitzy?
Maybe blockchain can make environmental conservation less about policy and regulation and more of a quantifiable data science. What if international agreements and conservation laws could be enforceable by smart contracts and made transparent and verifiable?
Blockchain and cryptocurrencies as conservation tools
An interesting article appeared in the journal Nature a few months ago. Written by Guillaume Chapron, associate professor of ecology at the Swedish University of agricultural science, the article breaks down some high-level ways that blockchain can enhance environmental conservation and protection:
1. Land records, titles, or deeds can be put on the blockchain creating a system of accountability, which could limit fraud and protect vulnerable populations. Keeping other information about land and natural resource use on the blockchain might also make water rights or mineral rights easier to track and enforce.
2. Cradle-to-grave documentation for everything from cotton and coffee to diamonds and valuable minerals can be monitored throughout entire lifecycles ensuring legal and legitimate supply chains. As one example, the London-based firm, Provenance, used a blockchain as the backbone of a tuna tagging and tracking program in Indonesia. The goal was to demonstrate that blockchain provides a trustworthy system for verifying a supply chain in an open and verifiable way. Although the counter-argument to that, which also needs some ground truthing, is that blockchain might not be best-suited to act as an accounting system for physical goods, because the first step of bringing the physical object into the blockchain protocol system still requires some level of trust.
3. Well defined and transparent incentives, which are everyone’s favorite motivational tool can be used to promote conservation practices worldwide. Currently, many populations in developing countries lack access to adequate banking and financial services. That creates a pressure to convert ecologically sensitive areas into liquid capital, such as clearing a forest to sell timber or graze cattle. (For more on this concept check out this Q&A with BitNatura, a tokenized blockchain system that encourages rainforest conservation.) The idea is to counteract those pressures by using blockchain as a means to create a way for landowners to create the infrastructure to gain value from maintaining the ecological benefits by being able to trade or sell water credits or climate credits.
4. A clear and trusted open ledger can increase accountability and efficiency of government agencies and organizations of all sizes by eliminating corruption and bureaucratic bottlenecks. The goal of the bitcoin blockchain is to create a fast and trusted peer-to-peer payment system, eliminating the need to involve traditional third parties such as banks or payment services. The same peer-to-peer concept can be also be applied to other applications of the blockchain, possibly minimizing or even eliminating the need for other layers of regulation. With a streamlined and trusted data system and the ability to execute smart contracts, new kinds of services, like neighborhood level smart energy grids, or the ability to share services like community wells and health clinics become more of an operational possibility.
Blockchain is a better system, not a cure
Of course, it’s easy to get carried away with blockchain as the silver bullet scenarios. But it is important to keep in mind that blockchain is really just a new data structure. And not all of society’s problems can be cured by a new technology.
But, not-the-less, it will be interesting to see how new digital tools help with old problems of trust and accountability, especially when talking about agencies and organizations that have struggled with operating in the sunshine.
I’m trying to collect other examples of blockchain and crypto projects that are being created to deal with environmental and conservation issues. If you know of one, or are working on one, please be in touch.