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Blockchain And Climate Change


According to a U.N. climate report that was released earlier this month, the world has only about 12 years to roll back carbon emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Silicon Valley has been at work on a solution for years, often promising quick fixes. Blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, is the latest solution coming from big tech. Member station KQED's Sam Harnett has more.

SAM HARNETT, BYLINE: Until about a year ago, hardly anyone in climate science was talking about blockchain. But at the recent Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, it was all over the place. There were panels and papers. People were talking about how it could help mitigate climate change in all sorts of ways.

TOM BAUMANN: Land use, agriculture, carbon soil sequestration, renewable power...

HARNETT: Tom Baumann co-chairs the Climate Chain Coalition. He came to the conference to spread awareness about blockchain. So what is it?

BAUMANN: Blockchain, or distributed ledger technology, really references a larger ecosystem of technologies.

HARNETT: OK, think of it like this. Blockchain is like an accounting book everyone can see, a distributed ledger. It's a record of transactions that isn't held by a central authority, like a bank, but instead on the computers of everyone on the blockchain. Transparency is its main advantage. Tons of new companies are springing up saying that they will use the transparency of blockchain to solve all sorts of problems - everything from curing cancer to ending human trafficking - and now even climate change.

PAUL GAMBILL: It's our intention to build the infrastructure to make it possible to reverse climate change.

HARNETT: Paul Gambill used to be a software product manager. He's working on climate change now. But he still makes the grand tech-world pitches. He's the CEO of a new Silicon Valley company called Nori.

GAMBILL: Nori's a blockchain-based marketplace that makes it easier for people to pay for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

HARNETT: Right now California, parts of the U.S. and Canada, the European Union and a number of other countries are participating in cap-and-trade carbon credit systems. The total number of carbon possible to emit is capped. And then companies can buy carbon credits that let them emit more. Economists love this market-based solution. But there's a problem when it comes to counting the carbon.

GAMBILL: Carbon markets in the past have been plagued with issues of fraud and double counting.

HARNETT: Nori wants to use blockchain to verify the accounting and to go one step further, to create a market for people taking carbon out of the environment. Now, the company hasn't launched yet. But that isn't limiting the ambition of the sales pitch.

GAMBILL: We want to make this whole climate change problem just go away.

HARNETT: So do scientists like Douglas McCauley.

DOUGLAS MCCAULEY: Yeah, I wish it was that easy.

HARNETT: McCauley's a researcher at UC Santa Barbara. He says the danger of Silicon Valley's big-promise, disrupt-everything ethos is that it suggests there's a quick and easy solution.

MCCAULEY: The things that fix climate change are going to be really hard.

HARNETT: Like getting countries to cut emissions or people to stop driving cars that pollute. McCauley says before it was blockchain, artificial intelligence and big data were the hot new things. Now, these have proven to be valuable tools for climate research, but in each case, it took scientists a few years to cut through all the hype.

MCCAULEY: We need to look past the shiny thing and start talking about exactly how to apply it usefully.

HARNETT: McCauley says blockchain could help with things like counting carbon credits or keeping track of, say, how many trees a company is planting to suck carbon out of the air. Katharine Mach, a climate scientist at Stanford, agrees. But she says it's dangerous to believe blockchain will be some kind of miracle cure.

KATHARINE MACH: It's essentially can-kicking ethics, where we won't be putting into place the solutions that are actually more important to make the entirety of the problem something that's solvable.

HARNETT: With the clock ticking on climate change, Mach says there's no time to waste sorting facts from hype. For NPR News, I'm Sam Harnett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Harnett