One of the few benefits we have seen emerge from the recent COVID-19 pandemic is an amplification of focus and desire for accountability around corporate and government sustainability, or “ESG” (Environmental, Social and Governance) metrics.
However, sustainability must move beyond commitments and transition into action. Sustainable action. Sustainable from process, technology and commercial standpoints; and helping those in a position of power (who have not traditionally been used to prioritising investments based on ESG metrics) to make difficult choices to drive action.
Furthermore, as we look at “earth system” trends like CO2 emissions, surface temperature, ocean acidification, tropical forest loss and many others we see exponential increases in harm and damage over recent years. In other words, acceleration.
Speaking of action, if we are to make any dent in these exponential trends, we need to aim for a more profound impact than incremental improvements to individual corporate metrics such as a10% reduction in plastic packaging, 15% increase in use of recycled materials or move to hybrid vehicle fleets. Aiming higher and working together across entire value chains is key and so is creating systems that enable collaboration, tracking, reporting and remuneration. The latter is important as businesses must remain commercially sustainable, or we will not see participation and investment amongst small and medium-sized enterprises..
Despite what some vendors say , there is no “single app” that addresses the wide spectrum of sustainability requirements as the use cases are varied and more will emerge.
Many corporations are embarking on internal “data gathering” exercises to assess their Scope 1 emissions (direct emissions from owned or controlled sources) so they can have a fact base from which to then take action in a couple of years. Often they are quietly hoping Scope 3 emissions (other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain) will go away. In my opinion, this approach is far from the immediate and meaningful “action” needed to drive change.
At the core, we need to enable more connected supply chains from which we can develop and co-create applications that share, automate, track and integrate with a multitude of different processes and IT systems.
Blockchain and distributed ledgers have proven themselves to be appropriate architectures for these multi-party platforms as they bring together identity, standards, automation of activity, aggregation of data, scalability, transparency and, importantly, incentivisation. That’s a lot more than just a “fancy data store.”
We can re-use or take inspiration from existing multi-party systems that are already addressing known climate and social issues, work together as networks of companies to have greater impact. And we can start today, not in two years’ time when we’ve completed our internal data audit.
Here are some examples of where distributed ledgers, and Hyperledger Fabric in particular, are already being used to address ESG issues that are cross-industry, cross-border and can be used as impact accelerators.
- Waste Reduction – Nearly half of all fruit and vegetables produced globally are wasted each year (source: United Nations): IBM Food Trust originated as a platform for managing food safety, but the data stored on the platform across farmers, transport companies, manufacturers and retailers allows for more granular tracking of freshness, dwell time, conditions in storage and transit, which can be used to optimise distribution, reduce waste, and even extend shelf life.
- Material Circularity – Production of materials we use every day account for 45% of the CO2 emissions (source: EuroParl): Plastic Bank has created a circular economy platform around collection, processing and sale of “Social Plastic” to large manufacturers, with a focus on empowerment and financial reward for collectors in developing countries. Mitsui and Asahi Kasei have also recently announced development of DLT-based circularity marketplaces to record, track and incentivise their suppliers and customers to increase re-use of plastic and chemical feedstock and provide transparency to regulators where taxation of imported plastics is coming into force.
- Social Impact – Almost half of consumption-related emissions are generated by just 10% of people globally (source: Project Drawdown): Farmer Connect has its origins in traceability of commodities such as coffee and cocoa and provision of self-sovereign identity applications for farmers. Interestingly, Farmer Connect is using its “first mile” digitisation expertise to bring customers (and brands) closer to social impact projects in developing countries and enable crowdfunding of local projects.
- Renewable Energy Consumption – Share of renewables in global electricity generation was 29% in 2020 (source: IEA): Renewables present an opportunity for low-cost, abundant energy but have challenges in scaling, particularly in balancing supply and demand. Equigy is a multi-country “crowd balancing” platform comprising energy companies in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy. Equigy uses blockchain technology to access, via aggregators, new sources of electricity from the owners of consumer-based devices and is working towards incorporating use of decentralised storage with private or commercial vehicles and batteries.
- Carbon Capture – In practice, some sectors will simply not be able to achieve net-zero emissions without carbon capture (source: IEA): Newlight Technologies recently launched a range of “regenerative, carbon-negative” fashion products made from air-captured carbon, and with the origin of the carbon capture and authenticity of individual products stored and traceable on a distributed ledger. While manufacture of sunglasses is not analogous to all sectors, the ability to track, certify and share material properties in increasingly regulated supply chains is becoming a critical core competence and can be a further step towards scaling voluntary carbon markets.
The important factor here is not that blockchain applied to these domains solved a problem but rather that these climate and social issues are multi-party problems that require entities, activities and processes to be supported by technology to drive and sustain change.
Hopefully, in this article we have demonstrated that the problems are clear, real and addressable; that multi-party collaboration platforms are feasible to implement; and that there are technology accelerators available to enterprises and governments that are proven and scalable. So there should be no further cause for inaction…