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Can Blockchain help us achieve the global sustainable development goals?

With the blockchains potential to embed trust into our digital and physical asset transactions - what role could it play in helping us achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

 

What has the blockchain got to do with the SDGs?

The SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. There are 17 goals, all of which are underpinned by more tangible targets, and all of which require global cooperation, fast action, transparency, better management of resources (or assets) and trust – these are all things which blockchain can help us deliver.  

The goals were created in response to major sustainability challenges such as resource scarcity, waste generation, greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, poverty, hunger and equality. With the blockchain providing better transparency and more trust, many of the positive actions already trying to tackle these major issues can start to gain traction.

Can the blockchain really help achieve the SDGs?

Just imagine taking the commendable progress already made through initiatives such as the Kimberly Process (for conflict diamonds), 3TG (for conflict minerals) or the UK’s Modern Slavery Act and integrating them throughout the supply chain using blockchain technology. Well – this is exactly what is starting to happen with the Kimberley Process piloting blockchain technology to create a seamless and continued global process for the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. This is a great example of applying blockchain to help achieve SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities by using the blockchain to verify the diamonds are in fact conflict free.

One of the most important aims of the SDGs is to tackle poverty (SDG 1 – No Poverty) and inequalities (SDG 5 – Gender Equality & SDG 10 – Reduces Inequalities) and this is exactly what BanQu is doing using blockchain technology. BanQu allows those in developing countries (e.g. farmers) to create an economic identify on the blockchain regardless of how little land or income they might have and regardless of gender. This not only allows them access to credit but also opens them up to the global economy. Further to this they have a ‘verifiable identify’ in the supply chain allowing better equality as their ‘identify’ will be linked to their product in the blockchain.

In my previous blog I touched upon the procurement of raw materials through a blockchain platform which would allow ‘asset tagging’ of raw materials. This technology would allow for full transparency and traceability throughout the supply chain which will ensure products are actually sourced in line with their sustainability claims (e.g. conflict mineral legislation such as 3TG). In my opinion this is a great example of the blockchain supporting with SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production.  

This concept is being put into action by UK based company Provenance who has piloted tracking fish through supply chain to guarantee that sustainable claims aren’t falsified as the product moves from the point of being caught to the supermarket shelf. This means that customers looking to buy ‘sustainably caught’ fish can be sure that the ‘claim’ associated with that fish hasn’t been duplicated and that their purchase is actually supporting the sustainable fishing industry. According to Provenance this works by allowing traditional fisherman to send a simple text message to register a catch; this creates a new ‘asset’ on the blockchain with a unique ID and every time that fish product moves through the supply chain, the blockchain ID is sold with it. This unique ID can also have other environmental data attributed to it such as Life Cycle Assessment data along with relevant audit information to demonstrate that the fish were caught legally and sustainably. This is not only an example of blockchain helping to achieve SDG 12, but also SDG 14 – Life Below Water.

As part of my role I support companies with their transition towards a circular economy (which is highly relevant to SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production) and I was therefore excited to read about an Ethereum-based German company called Slock.it. This tech start-up is developing a ‘Universal Share Network’ powered by blockchain technology which will allow underused assets such as temporarily vacant apartments, office space, shipping containers, or machinery to be utilised. Essentially they are developing an automated and fully verifiable infrastructure for the ‘Sharing Economy’.

In October 2016 Wal-Mart partnered with IBM to use blockchain to track a ‘packaged produce’ item in the U.S. and a pork product in China. This allowed Wal-Mart to obtain vital data, for each product, on how and where the food was grown or reared and who inspected it. This means that when a contaminated product is identified they can identify exactly which farm it originated from and only recall those affected rather than the entire product range; this will save thousands of tonnes of food waste. According to the FAO, one-third of food produced for human consumption is wasted – predominantly within the supply chain – and therefore this is another example of blockchain contributing towards the global goals; in this instance SDG 2 – Zero Hunger.

The range of applications speaks volumes for the potential this technology has to both speed up and instigate action towards the global goals. Siemens collaboration with LO3 Energy, for example already demonstrates action under SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy. The residents of Flint (Michigan) are campaigning to combine blockchain with IoT to build more trust into their water network. This is an example of SDG 6 – Clear Water and Sanitation and should ensure that there is never a repeat of the awful contamination emergency of 2014-16.

Moving away from utilities, blockchain technology is also being applied at city level in Dubai where a city-wide pilot is underway to integrate blockchain with city services. This would greatly reduce wasted time, effort and resources and could play a crucial role under SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities. Similarly, blockchain is being utilised at a rural level where the Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification, who is responsible for more than 300 million hectares of certified forests, has been investigating blockchain as an alternative solution for tracing provenance; an example of SDG 15 – Life on Land in action.

I think that the above examples only scratch the surface of blockchains potential to help achieve the SDGs; to meet the goals we must collaborate on a global level and with ‘trust’ fully integrated – I think blockchain might be the tool to help us do this.

Robbie Epsom is WSP principal consultant for environment and sustainabillity