Ahmad Zaihan Amran/123RF

Blockchain For The Environment: 7 Possible Use Cases

  • 20 November 2018
  • Sam Mire

Worldwide, 3.5 trillion plastic bags have been produced year-to-date, a figure that is rapidly skyrocketing. And that waste has to go somewhere. So it should be no surprise that without adequate environmental policy or cultures of recycling in the majority of the developing world, an estimated 2.2 billion tons of waste are dumped into the world’s oceans each year. Despite global treaties among world powers, environmentalists seem to be losing the battle for a paradigm shift, no matter which metric you consult.

Emerging hazards and environmental factors are expected to account for 25% of global death and disease, with regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa experiencing disproportionate levels as high as 35%, according to the WHO. These figures include 1.7 million people who will die annually from poor sanitation and disease due to a lack of fresh water, 800,000 who will succumb to diseases related to urban air pollution, and 1.6 million who will be killed by respiratory issues arising from the use of solid waste in domestic cooking and other in-home uses. Even developed world powers such as China have serious issues with environmentally ruinous behaviors — 1.1 million Chinese died as the result of air pollution in 2015.

The blockchain cannot resolve these issues overnight, and likely could not change cultures of pollution and environmental recklessness given an infinite amount of time. However, through use cases such as public, interoperable ledgers documenting business and government pollution output on a global and domestic scale, treaties may become more easily enforceable and public awareness of corporate polluters will be heightened. Further, global, blockchain-linked programs incentivizing recycling, safe waste disposal, and other pro-environmental behaviors could serve as a means for populations to have a positive effect in nations outside of their own.

Blockchain for the environment - Practical use cases

Rewarding Recycling

Blockchain use cases in the environmental industry - Rewarding Recycling

Each year, 1.3 billion tons of global waste is created, and that number is expected to rise annually, ultimately hitting the 4 million ton threshold by 2100. Even the best performing nations hover around a 63% recycling rate, and most of the world has few formal recycling mechanisms, if any. Even the United States, which has implemented recycling programs for years, has only a 34% recycling rate. The benefits of recycling are clear — in 2013 alone, 254 million tons of recycled trash and compost prevented emissions and pollution that was equivalent to removing 39 million cars from the road for a year.

However, the push for greater adoption of recycling continues, as plastic continues to contaminate the oceans and cause pollution and eyesores the world over. Projects have been created that return tangible value through cryptocurrencies to those who recycle, offering better prices while reducing fees by avoiding currency differences. The ability to deploy these programs, especially in developing nations, could provide a strong incentive to recycle through a reliable, easy-to-access means of income.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • PlasticBank Incentivizing recycling and plastic removal through cryptocurrency rewards and blockchain systems.
  • Agora Tech Lab Netherlands based firm encouraging recycling behavior through token rewards.
  • EnergiToken – Rewarding energy savings. 

Conservation for Developing Nations

Blockchain use cases in the environmental industry - Conservation for Developing Nations

Only about 10% of the waste generated every day in Africa is collected. If not collected, that waste ultimately turns into litter, whether it ends up on the streets, in gutters, in water sources, or elsewhere. Another study found that 55.3% of schoolchildren in a manufacturing-heavy Brazilian town displayed worsened pulmonary function due to heavily polluted air. And a notorious accidental release of toxic gases from a pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, in 1984 exposed 600,000 to a deadly gas cloud that ultimately claimed the lives of 15,000 people, making it the “world’s worst industrial disaster.” Unfortunately, many developing nations do not have systems in place to keep their people safe from environmental pollution, whether acute or insidious.

While not all of these problems are soluble, blockchain technology could provide incentives and systems by which environmental hazards in the developing world could be decreased. Tracking emissions on a decentralized ledger provides a fraud-resistant framework for financial incentives tied to safer, cleaner practices. While patrons for such systems will be necessary, the global push for environmental awareness seems strong enough that governments could be compensated by the IMF or other global institutions in order to compensate individuals and businesses within their borders for environmentally friendly practices.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Dutch Blockchain Coalition While not a developing nation, the Netherlands have launched several blockchain based infrastructure initiatives to increase accountability in waste management.
  • WePower WePower’s partnership with the Estonian government to improve visibility on energy usage is an example for how developing nations can leverage blockchain for conservation.
  • Brooklyn Microgrid  Example of smaller community-driven microgrids. 

Carbon Taxation/Cap and Trade

Blockchain use cases in the environmental industry - Carbon Taxation - Cap and Trade

Carbon taxes and a regulatory system predicated on the capping business’ allotted amounts of carbon production are highly controversial. Carbon-aimed regulatory legislation in California generated $969 million in tax revenue, but with that revenue intended to go toward projects that would reduce carbon emissions, some wonder whether lower greenhouse gases were actually caused by the state’s cap and trade policies.

In September 2016, California signed a bill that aims to reduce carbon emissions to 40% below 1990 levels — a lofty goal that will undoubtedly increase the cost of carbon emissions drastically. With eleven states having adopted some form of cap and trade policy, the need to explore systems that will limit additional costs from inefficiencies is only fair to those who will be paying the taxes. Numerous companies are developing tokens and platforms on which carbon credits can be stored and traded more easily, securely, and instantaneously without incurring additional fees or taxes. In a regulatory environment where transparency is hard to come by, such platforms are a step in the right direction.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Veridium and IBM Partnership Promising partnership between Veridium and IBM aiming to account for and offset carbon emissions.
  • CarbonX A ConsenSys offshoot aiming to create P2P carbon credit trading capabilities.  

Environmental Treaty Enforcement

Blockchain use cases in the environmental industry - Environmental Treaty Enforcement

There are currently 2,294 bilateral environmental agreements, 1,311 multilateral environmental agreements, and 250 other forms of environmental agreements on the books, according to the International Environmental Agreements Database Project. The UN has even dubbed the 500 internationally recognized agreements signed into by world leaders in the past 50 years — including 61 atmosphere-related; 155 biodiversity-related; 179 related to chemicals, hazardous substances, and waste; 46 land conventions; and 196 conventions that are broadly related to issues dealing with water — as “treaty congestion.”

But as it turns out, entering into agreements is far easier than enforcing or adhering to their parameters. When the UN Environment Program examined the status of these treatises, “some progress” was shown in only 40 goals within the agreements, while “little or no progress” and “further deterioration” were the statuses assigned to a combined 32 goals. This isn’t exactly rousing success, and it makes many environmental agreements ring hollow. Blockchain believers see the technology as a means to log treaty progress with respect to participating nations on an immutable, interoperable ledger as a means to grant broader oversight and, in doing so, ramp up public pressure on those not carrying their weight.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

Cleaner Crypto Mining

Last year, one study suggested that Bitcoin mining consumes at least as much electricity in a year — 24 TWh — as all of Ireland. It was also suggested that the energy consumption rate will continue to double every six months until eventually, by the end of 2018, energy consumption consumed in Bitcoin mining could reach the level consumed by all of the Czech Republic, about 67 TWh.

In fact, it’s already surpassed the Czech Republic. Currently, Bitcoin’s estimated TWh per year sits at about 73, and the likes of Belgium, Finland, and Pakistan, all with TWh usage in the 80s, are likely to be surpassed next. It’s no surprise that an estimated 80% of Bitcoin miners’ expenses go to energy costs. Crypto miners are aware of their outsize energy consumption, which is why some startups have established self-sustaining projects utilizing unique tokens, the aim of which are to reinvest into renewable energy projects. Ultimately, a greater reliance on renewable energy sources will help lessen the image of crypto miners as wanton burners of old-school fuels.  

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Genesis Mining World’s largest cloud mining provider runs facilities in regions like Iceland to support more environmentally friendly mining.
  • HIVE Blockchain Technologies The first publicly traded crypto mining company, HIVE operates facilities using hydroelectric power in Sweden. 

Environmental Non-Profit Monitoring

Blockchain use cases in the environmental industry - Environmental Non-Profit Monitoring

The environment is an easy heartstring upon which predatory fake charities routinely pull. As discussed in the Philanthropy section, the blockchain’s ability to provide transparency to donors means that environmental charities — like charities more broadly — will have less opportunity to pocket unreasonable portions of donations. Those seeking to donate funds for the implementation of solar panels in Africa, for example, could see precisely where their funds end up.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

Reducing Waste Through Better Tracking Mechanisms

Blockchain use cases in the environmental industry - Reducing Waste Through Better Tracking Mechanisms

While most nations in the developed world have embraced a higher consciousness when it comes to being aware of how our waste disposal habits affect the environment, much of the world remains perilously reckless in this regard. Bodies of water such as the Citarum River in Indonesia have become so riddled with pollution and non-biodegradable waste that they are unfishable, unswimmable, and definitely unsightly. Citarum is considered the most polluted river in the world, as it’s been infected with immeasurable amounts of mercury, arsenic, chemical dyes, plastic, and other unidentifiable forms of waste.

Even conditions in the developed world have taken quite some time to turn around. Among the ten most polluted cities in the world are Los Angeles, Beijing, Shanghai, Moscow, and Paris — not exactly third-world slums. The reality is that people need strong incentive to do the difficult things in life, and love of the earth or concern for the future of the planet haven’t served as adequate deterrents to detrimental waste disposal practices.

The ability to track waste, and the way that we either recycle and dispose of our trash responsibly — or don’t — is one of the first steps toward creating cultural change to foster more environmentally-responsible mind frames. The ability to use blockchain ledgers to track both individuals’ and businesses’ waste disposal habits establishes a framework for identifying where improvements can be made. Further, incentivizing better habits through the issuance of cryptocurrencies has already proven an effective method for producing more responsible behaviors, particularly in the developing world.

About Sam Mire

Sam is a Market Research Analyst at Disruptor Daily. He's a trained journalist with experience in the field of disruptive technology. He’s versed in the impact that blockchain technology is having on industries of today, from healthcare to cannabis. He’s written extensively on the individuals and companies shaping the future of tech, working directly with many of them to advance their vision. Sam is known for writing work that brings value to industry professionals and the generally curious – as well as an occasional smile to the face.