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How can blockchain create a more sustainable planet?

Worried that the planet is beyond saving - are climate change and resource scarcity beyond the tipping point? Well worry no more as the blockchain industrial revolution is arriving – and apparently it’s going to solve everything...

 

Blockchain has been touted by some as a ground-breaking new technology, on par with the internet, that will revolutionise the financial system, remove the need for centralised institutions (such as banks and regulators), save the environment, the rainforest, the healthcare system and even free speech.

These might sound like unrealistic, far reaching claims. However, with a quick internet search one can find numerous studies, or real world projects, attesting to the progress being made in each of these areas. Granted - some have had more success than others…but the ambitions are there.

What is the blockchain and what has it got to do with sustainability?

If you’ve not heard of the blockchain, you probably will have heard of the cryptocurrency bitcoin; the blockchain is essentially the algorithm that underpins bitcoin. At its core the blockchain is a decentralised network of digital records (or ‘ledgers’) linked to a particular asset (whether that be a bitcoin, a food product or even a written blog). The blockchain keeps track of every transaction made and its accuracy is guaranteed through the combined independent verification of the entire network.

Information on the history of ownership, financial data and any other important information is assigned to a unique signature (known as a ‘hash’) and if someone alters that information, that unique code no longer works, and everyone knows something is not right.

Imagine a tracking system that verifies a product’s source data as it moves across a supply chain, sending automated alerts about unexpected deviations that could signal potential tampering or environmental conditions that might pose health and safety issues.  Through such a system an electronics business purchasing component parts from a supplier could verify that the raw materials used were actually sourced from sustainable mines (e.g. operating in accordance with the latest conflict mineral legislation such as 3TG). In addition, environmental data concerning everything from energy consumption to waste generation could be allocated to the product’s ‘ledger’ each step of the way providing transparent and accurate data on the true environmental impact of the product.

Alternatively, consider a different application, such as Siemens’ collaboration with LO3 Energy, a start-up based in New York, to develop microgrids that use blockchain technology to enable local energy trading. This allows for transparent, trackable and tamper-proof trading of green energy, without the need for centralised monitoring, between multiple participating systems and various stakeholders while taking grid-specific requirements into account. This could transform the market for localised energy generation as it allows for local energy networks that can separate from the main grid (e.g. during extreme weather events). It could also significantly reduce costs and catalyse the uptake of renewable energy and storage technology. This could potentially be done through existing technology but the blockchain provides the ‘trust’ which allows the trading of energy to happen outside of a decentralised system such as a national grid.

The role of the blockchain in life cycle assessments

A large part of my role involves helping companies with Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)  studies and developing Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for their products. A practical early application for “blockchain for sustainability” could be to build LCA data (according to ISO 14040/44) into a product or asset’s digital ledger. This would take a product’s environmental data (raw materials, energy consumption, environmental impacts etc.) and report it alongside the financial data within the ledger, essentially making an EPD ‘machine readable’ within the blockchain network. As with the above examples – this would provide business to business customers with the transparency they need to take control of their supply chain and ensure their products are truly sustainable at every stage of their journey.

Is the blockchain the sustainable solution?

There are a significant amount of other things that need to happen (from policy to corporate leadership action and technological advances) to tackle global sustainability chalenges. However, one thing is clear – the blockchain has the potential to be a very effective tool for sustainability and will enable faster and more transparent action.

As global supply chains start to do business through the decentralised blockchain network, it may even allow progress in sustainability to take place at a faster pace than policy and trade agreements. With all cards on the table; companies and individuals can hold their supply chain accountable and the power for change is put in the hand of the customer.

Are you a blockchain developer and keen to collaborate with sustainability scientists and engineers? Feel free to get in touch with Robbie Epsom, environmental principal consultant at WSP.