Episode 13 – Cryptonature – Using Blockchain Technology to Tackle Environmental Problems – Pete Howson, Nottingham Trent University

This week we are talking about the blockchain. Could the technology behind Bitcoin help us tackle some of the worlds biggest environmental problems? There are many issues with trust in today’s society and around environmental concerns, this is no different. How do we know the true impact of products we are buying when they are often assembled from ingredients or parts from all over the world? How do we know that donations actually finds its way to projects on the ground that are making a difference?  Blockchain is the technology that hopes to provide that trust and is being heralded by some as the biggest potential technological disruptor since the internet. So this is all very exciting but I still find this new technology hard to get my head around, and can it really provide the answer to all of our problems? I’m approaching this with a slightly skeptical mind, not least because I lost some money after I finally gave in and bought some bitcoins the day before it crashed…..but anyway, I thought about interviewing a company that is utilising the technology already but as I am still not that clued up I decided to head to an academic to get both sides of the story, the potential pros but also any cons. In this interview, I speak to Pete Howson a Lecturer in International Development and Nottingham Trent University who has published papers on this very subject. So hopefully after this interview, you will have a better idea what blockchain is and I can decide whether I should just sell my bitcoin…….   To follow Pete’s work and for more info go to www.crytonature.org Or you can follow him on Twitter @peterjhowson

Full Transcript

Rob Wreglesworth  0:14 

Today I’m taking a look at blockchain. Could the technology behind Bitcoin help us solve some big environmental problems? Or is it just another passing fad?


There are many issues with trust in today’s society, and around environmental concerns, that’s no different. How do we know the true impact of products that we’re buying? When they’re often assembled from ingredients or parts from all over the world? How do we know that donations we make the call conservation actually find their way to projects on the ground? Well, blockchain is the new technology that helps to provide that trust. And it’s being heralded by some as the biggest potential technological disruptor since the internet.

So this is all really exciting, but I still find this new technology quite hard to get my head around and can it really provide the answer to all our problems. Now approaching this with a slightly skeptical mind, not least because I lost some money after I finally gave in and bought Bitcoin about a day before it crashed.

Anyway, I thought interviewing a company that is utilizing the technology already, when it’s such a new technology, and I’m not fully clued up on it may not be the best route to go down. So I decided to head to an academic instead to try and get both sides of the story, the potential pros and the potential cons. In this interview I speak to Pete Howson, a lecturer in international development at Nottingham Trent University, and he’s published papers on this very subject. So I’m hoping that after this interview, I have a much better understanding of what blockchain is. And I can finally decide whether I should sell that Bitcoin or hang on to it.


So my first question and the question I always get asked when I bring up blockchain is can you explain in layman’s terms, what blockchain is exactly. I mean, I’m sure most people have probably come across it from Bitcoin. That’s where I first came across. The concept.


Pete Howson  2:22 

Yeah, I mean, when people start, when people hear the word blockchain first the eyes start rolling. And people have this reaction like, Oh, it’s just hype.


But I think that comes from a place of misunderstanding. I think it’s, as you say, most people understand blockchain as the technology behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. And Bitcoin is different to the paper money in your pocket, or the pounds in your bank account, because the ledger, the books that everyone looks at, they’re not kept by a private bank, on their computers, it’s decentralized.

And this sounds boring. But this is a big deal, because the most corrupt thing about fiat currency like pounds in your bank account, is that the private banks create new money out of thin air when they make loans. So when I borrow five grand from HSBC, or whoever, they don’t go to the vaults and take five grand out, that money is created out of thin air, and I have to pay it back with interest. And this is what’s called the fractional reserve banking system.

With Bitcoin, new coins and made when what we call miners and agree to keep a copy of the Bitcoin ledger. So the books everyone looks at, on their servers in exchange for Bitcoin. So a Bitcoin is created every 10 minutes. And that’s because the ledger is updated every 10 minutes. And it’s given to the miner who solved a complicated math puzzle called a hash.

So this process of sharing the record of who owns what is called, it was referred to as the distributed Ledger’s. And the distributed ledger is just like a really slow, cumbersome, shared Google Docs, spreadsheet, everything created like that. So it’s not very efficient at all. But the ledger is super secure. So it can’t be hacked. Theoretically. It’s immutable. So any amendment is kept forever. Well, for as long as there’s a functioning Internet,

And it’s so secure, some mathematicians have said that it would be more likely for someone to be able to turn a cooked chicken nugget back into a living chicken them for them to be able to corrupt the Bitcoin blockchain.

So the word blockchain is often used interchangeably with this distributed ledger technology. But distributed ledger technologies are just one use for blockchain. So the theorem blockchain, for example, can facilitate what we call smart contracts. I said this, this contract is a piece of self executing code, which basically states similar to this, if x happens, then execute y. Like an IF function you get on a Excel spreadsheet, and again, this sounds quite boring, but it’s actually actually quite profound. So the blockchain distributes the Ethereum token, which called ether to instigate these commands this effectively and why and contract commands. When you think about it, it’s no wonder the technology is receiving so much hype. So think we could get rid of estate agents, lawyers, doing expensive conveyancing services, banks, of course, we could get rid of record company bosses. Any industry that provides a service as an intermediary between two contracting parties could be replaced with this technology.


Rob Wreglesworth  6:27 

So it’s all about trust, really, those people are mainly they’re at the moment because we don’t trust the system. We need someone to oversee the process and provide that level of trust. Is that is that


Pete Howson  6:37 

Yeah, that’s exactly right. And this is what I’m interested in. So what I’m interested in how is is what happens when you bring in these these other technologies, like distributed autonomous organizations, and machine learning AI, and Internet of Things like your Fitbit on your wrist and everything like that. And then you combine that with blockchain technology, and then the possibilities are endless.


Rob Wreglesworth  7:09 

It all sounds very exciting. I keep hearing that it’s going to be the biggest thing seems to have taken a bit of a, I mean, maybe not for people that are working on it day to day, but from the public, it seems to have taken a bit of a step back in terms of the excitement, everyone got very excited for a while I’ve still heard people talking about it as being the next internet, the next big technological advance, it’s going to change the way we interact on a day to day basis. It’s all very exciting. But how do you see it coming into play when we talk about environmental conservation applications? And it’s something you’ve been working on? Is it? Is it fairly new that idea of of using this was it something that you wanted the first people to work on? Or is it been an idea that’s been explored for a while? And what sort of problems could it possibly solve? They’re, they’re out there.


Pete Howson  8:01 

When we think about, you know, what problems is these blockchain developers trying to fix? I mean, by even saying that you’re sort of insinuating that blockchain developers know what the problem is. And, and I think this really is the issue that you have blockchain developers that are very good at coding. They’re very creative. They got some really good ideas, but they are unfamiliar with the science behind global environmental change, as well as the social and political dimensions to those issues as well. So yeah, I’m interested in specifically how blockchain technology is being leveraged in order to affect deforestation and for restoration practices. So I’m specifically interested in carbon offsetting projects like REDD+, which stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the plus stands for these co benefits, like improving biodiversity and community development and all of this sort of thing. So essentially, it’s a mechanism which is backed by the United Nations to try and make forests more valuable standing, then cut down. So the idea is, is that you have an intact forest. So let’s say I’m giving your listeners and advice on how they can become carbon cowboys here.


And so basically, first of all, you have to find a patch of forest, the forest has to be in the global south, because it has to be in a country that doesn’t have any obligations to meet any climate change mitigation programs like Kyoto / Paris Agreement, I find a patch of forest lets say in Indonesia, however, the forest has to be under threat of being cut down for something like palm oil, or mining or something like that. So I have to write a document, which basically outlines a narrative and a rationale behind my intervention. So in this document, I say, if I hadn’t intervened, then this palm oil developer would come in and cut all the trees down, then I give that document to a third party intermediary. So highly paid consultant from the global north flies into Indonesia checks, everything’s legit. And then they will give me and avoided a missions allowance of tokens. And which will verify the fact that I have prevented a certain number of carbon, tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere from the trees being cut down.


And I can then sell those tokens they’ve credits because one credit equals saved carbon, as long as I agreed to protect that price for 35 years. And I can sell those credits, take the money and run. Or I could use the money and plant new trees. And then I receive a payment for the additionality. So this is the increased number of tons of carbon that now exist in this force. The problem is, is that I haven’t dealt with the underlying driver of deforestation. So yeah, I may have stopped this particular patch of forest from being cut down. But all I probably have done is move the threat of deforestation down the road. So they’ll cut the trees down down the road. So there is no net decrease in the amount of carbon that’s being emitted into the atmosphere, only within the context of the project site that I’ve been financing.

 So this is the problem. This is what we called leakage. And it’s something that REDD+ has never been able to really deal with. What blockchain does, is that it enables these new forms of verification to come in, which mean that potentially the REDD+ carbon tokens are more verifiable, they reflect a reality, which can be checked. And so it’s being used by existing carbon offsetting projects already. And these, they’re using carbon credits, and they’re combining them with cryptographic tokens.

An example in Indonesia is Rimba Riya reserve, which was one of the first REDD+ projects, which are now using a platform ‘Verde’ which is the native token, it’s been put together by a company called Veridian Labs. So they’re part of the same parent company as infinite Earth. Their idea is that you get this Verde pay credit card, and you go around being you’re doing your normal consumption patterns, buying shoes and petrol for your car or anything..


Pete Howson  13:16 

And when you make that purchase, Verde will buy the equivalent number of carbon tokens from their forest to offset the embodied carbon emissions from your purchases. So all this is nothing new, then really just expanded offsetting project only using crypto currencies today. There’s other ones which are a bit more fancy. So there’s another there’s a project in Zimbabwe. And that’s been put together by Earth token. And what they’re doing is they’re offering local community members incentive payments in the form of cryptocurrencies, when they plant trees. So this is like, you know, crazy when we were thinking about sort of indigenous people living in, you know, the jungle, we don’t think people will crypto wallets on their smartphones. But this is essentially what the effect of the technologies have been. And, rightly or wrongly, obviously, that has that has implications in terms of sort of politics and within these societies. So some projects are using blockchain based smart contracts to remediate already degraded forests. Whereas these other REDD+ projects were all about keeping standing for us intact, but you could also use blockchain fixes to plant new trees, and facilitate that.

They’re using lots of these IoT devices, Internet of Things, devices, similar to your Fitbit, or whatever, but they putting sensors in the water. And they’re saying to local communities, you know, so if the water quality improves, straightaway you get this incentive payment in the form of a cryptocurrency, they use satellites, and LIDAR and all these other remote sensing devices to check the change in the carbon content of a forest. So if it improves, then again, straightaway, you get this incentive payment, which is paid to the community that lives in the area. So it enables this direct payment of incentives go to go directly to price communities, and that wasn’t the same for REDD+. Take, for example, Indonesia, it has hundreds of REDD+ projects, and they receive money from the global carbon market. But none of that money, not a single payment has ever made it to local communities. And they’re the ones that take on all the risk. Yeah, they do all the work, that blockchain could mess all that up and actually enable local can be is to,


Rob Wreglesworth  16:01 

I think the thing that always confuses me the most is when you start to bring in all the different coin types and coin names. I still find it hard to come to terms with when you’ve got all these different types of coins, like carbon coin and, and different coins. how they relate


Pete Howson  16:17 

The bit that I used to struggle with, is not necessarily the range of different tokens because we have that already, don’t we I mean, we’ve got hundreds of different currencies that we will trade and, and then if you start thinking about some of these crypto currencies, or assets, they’re not even currencies, so you have to think about all the different sort of commodities that we have in trade.


Rob Wreglesworth  16:40 

I remember one of the things that when Bitcoin first came out that people were saying could be great about it was the fact that it was just one, we could potentially have one currency that we trade, but you’re saying it’s not that simple. We can’t just have one coin that’s used for everything, we still gonna have to have different types of currency for different things is going to be more could be a case of it’s a currency for for an application rather than a currency for a country.


Pete Howson  17:03 

Yeah, and I mean, it gets even more complicated. You know, when you think these things don’t just apply in certain localities they tie in within certain time frames as well. So take ‘ox-chain’, for example, which is a project which is being developed by Oxfam, and they’re looking to see if a blockchain token can be used as an alternative to aid payments, which are used during sort of disaster situation. So for example, they’re faced with this problem, where if there’s a hurricane somewhere, or you know, a tsunami, and in the, in the Pacific, in some remote island, somehow they have to get us dollars, or some sort of currency over to these people. So they can have like a functioning economy so they can just continue with their lives in this disasters tonight. Yeah, I mean, what they’re trying to do is to just say, Well, you’ve got the phone as long as we can get the internet going. And we can just straight away send, I don’t know, ox coin or something like that. It’s not what they’re going to call it… And they send this off token and as soon as they decide that the disaster event is finished, they can switch off the whole economy. So then you go back to your default currency of whatever they were using before this disaster event. So yeah, I mean, it’s really a different way of thinking about how we you can’t really compare it to, to feel it in that respect.


Rob Wreglesworth  18:43 

Do you think with the technology of blockchain, if that can mean getting money from consumers in the global north into the right hands into the hands of local people who are in those countries that will stop the drivers for things deforestation? Or, do you think it’s more complicated than that?


Pete Howson  19:02 

Yeah. So I mean, this is the thing with REDD+, and the way that it frames, local people as the problem, and like, a technology can come in and just make REDD+ work.

I mean, the issue is, is that we we’ve got, we don’t understand the problem. And because the problem is not local people cutting trees down. It’s you and I, and now our first cheap toothpaste and soap and glossy magazines. That’s the problem. And I think what REDD+ does is that it points the finger at people in Indonesia for cutting their own forests down, when obviously, you know that behaviour is takes place in the context of global capitalism. So I mean, that’s, that’s the nature of the problem. And I think, for me the potential in blockchain to really sort of reconfigure global capitalism, it’s the fact that it doesn’t have to just mirror what we already do with fiat currency, and then think that that’s going to make much difference.

That’s why people struggle to get their heads around it. Because like you said, it’s not that it’s not the same as fiat currency that we’ve got now. But everyone’s grown up with this economic model of capitalism as we’ve got it now. So it’s pretty hard to understand any other model. And that’s why I think people are still striving for market based approaches. And the way that things are exchanged, even in the natural world is still defaults back to the current economic model that we’re also familiar with.

I think the issue is, well, we’ve already sort of touched on this already that we have, like these blockchain developers, they have good intentions. And they’re trying to put these these sort of clever system together, I’ll give you an example. So there’s a group called Terror Zero, which is a really creative project. What Terror Zero have done is that their project, it takes advantage of the fact that some countries have put their land registry’s on the blockchain, because it’s incorruptible. And because the blockchain is just digital technology, it has no understanding of whether an entry on the ledger is a human being a company, or even the forest itself. So what they do is they buy a bit of land, and then enter the purchases name on the land registry as the forest itself, so the forest owns itself, then it uses some clever, smart contract self-executing code to say that to actually issue licenses to timber companies, so they can come in and cut down a certain amount of trees, give the money to the forest to the forest can then buy new land, so it can grow. And it can regenerate itself. The idea being that over time, this virus will get bigger and bigger and own itself and have rights on human terms. So it’s all very clever. And they’ve also got this project called flower tokens, which is another like very creative project, that they’ve got all these little potted freesias a they put them in a case with a camera or a call system. So the camera takes all these measurements of each and every plant.


And then as the plants grow, the value of the associated crypto token grows in value. And so it puts that incentive on the owner as the token to look after the associated plants is when the plant dies, and so does any value associated with the coin. So it makes sense for you to constantly keep watering the plant, make sure it grows, and it’s healthy, because that’s how you maintain or increase the value of your money. Yeah. And so that I mean, this is this is really, really creative. And you think, imagine if we scale this up, and our entire economy could be associated with the health of the biosphere? And because they’re talking about putting these cameras on individual trees in forest, we could scale this up.


Rob Wreglesworth  23:50 

So does that get around the problem of the value would be in would only be for that thing, it would only be for the value that the forest provides Because at the moment, you’ve got the competing interests coming to you with one currency, you’ve got all this the value of the land, what it’s worth that development, what it’s worth for palm oil plantation. If that came in that coin would only be worth something if that tree was kept intact as a tree.


Pete Howson  24:12 

Yeah, I mean, totally. It’s all of them. But I mean, that’s capitalism, isn’t it? I mean, right now, natural resources are only valuable in terms of the amount of profit they can make for the people who own those resources. But I mean, I mean, blockchain fixes don’t overcome that, though. It doesn’t help us to think about forest, for example, as having a kind of inherent value in terms of a spiritual basis, this is something that blockchain can’t overcome, because it perpetuates this sort of market based form of environmental management.


Rob Wreglesworth  24:52 

Things are happening so quickly in terms of things like deforestation etc, if we wait until the economic models changes completely, then it might be too late. So is there still a place for the sort of market based approaches as a kind of stop gap? Or do you worry that it’s just going to continue to cause more problems going forward?


Pete Howson  25:15 

So market based methods of environmental management have never worked? So there isn’t, I don’t think that there is a place for them. There’s no point as engaging with them.


Rob Wreglesworth  25:30 

So even from a, you know, from like a framing point of view, it’s had a lot of negative press, but even from a practical point of view, you don’t think it has any place,


Pete Howson  25:40 

Especially from a practical point of view, it has no place.

So I mean, if you think about, how we’ve progressed in the last 30 years with having environmental assets and market based mechanisms being the cornerstone mechanism in the way that we, as in humanity, engage with is the threat of climate change, we haven’t seen any progress in terms of reducing emissions by putting a price on carbon or anything similar.


Rob Wreglesworth  26:08 

Offsetting has been around for quite a long time now, in some form or another in the in the Western world.


Pete Howson  26:14 

Just to give you a sort of timeline, so 1987, and we had the Montreal Protocol. So this came about because there was a hole in the ozone layer, which was developing because of humans emitting CFC into the atmosphere. We obviously understood that this was an existential threat for humanity, and we’d have to take immediate action to fix it. So the global international community got together. And we did a command and control form of governance, which put limits on each signatory of this protocol. And there was a pot of money put aside, so for poor countries that couldn’t for to do this and they would be have this source of funding, which would help them to through the transition, and it worked, it was a massive success, and had we not have done that, then we would all be covered in tumors, and it would be a very horrible world that we live in right now.

And that was only 1987, that we kind of got together and fix it. So after Montreal, then the US suddenly realized that acid rain was an issue, and this is a problem in Europe as well. The issue is sulphur dioxide emissions that came from coal fired power plants in the US, they opted for this market based mechanism called the acid rain program, where they put a price on the amount of sulphur dioxide which could be emitted by coal fired power stations, and each state was given a cap, how much they were allowed to admit, if they wanted to emit more than this cap, they would have to purchase licenses from other states. And slowly the sulphur dioxide emissions came down. And this was just to be a massive success.

This was their years ago in 1989. Then everyone realized that okay, we fix ozone, we fix CFC to fixed sulphur dioxide and acid rain. We still haven’t fix carbon dioxide. This was the real threat, you know, that people knew was coming or you know, was happening. But if suddenly 25 years ago became something that we knew we had to deal with. In the US there was this resolution in the Senate, they’re called the Byrd–Hagel resolution. They made it pretty much illegal for the US to make any take any action on climate change, that would negatively affect the US economy, which was a problem, because when we were trying to do what we did in Montreal, but for climate change for stopping carbon emissions, and we could only do a market based fix, because of this Byrd–Hagel resolution that was affecting what the US could, could do. So when Clinton and Al Gore went to try and prevent this Montreal Protocol style way of doing things where laws were just put in place to stop countries producers from making a mess. And instead it became this market based fix. And it hasn’t, it hasn’t worked. I mean, atmospheric CO2 concentrations today have not been as high since in the last 55 million years. So I mean, you know, these carbon markets, they may provide this little disingenuous accounting mechanism. We can hide certain amounts of carbon emissions. But I mean, when you look at the net amount of CO2 being emitted, it’s never been as high as it is today, not in 25 years. So it’s not working. And obviously, my research is still in progress as to whether blockchains can make any difference to this. And we’ll see.


Rob Wreglesworth  30:22 

On one hand the thinking is it that the only way that you’re going to get people to listen to people with money to listen to the to the seriously and start valuing ecological and environmental assets, how they should be valued, but then part of me thinks we are just creating more a problem in terms of putting a price on everything? It’s a tricky one. But we’ll hopefully see if some of the issues in terms of trust anyway, can be resolved with technologies, new technologies coming through, like blockchain. So we’ll see. See what happens. But I am definitely torn one myself.


Pete Howson  31:02 

The best way to store carbon is to plant trees and the best way to prevent climate change in the first place is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But then neither of those two options are good for the economy. Because they involve spending money, these aren’t Win Win outcomes, unless you know, when we say a win is for people to have a spiritual connection with the natural world. But I mean, you know, you can’t profit from that.


Rob Wreglesworth  31:26 

It’s hard enough to get people in the developed world to care about these issues, to care about the environment deeply enough to not think about it from a monetary point of view. So in the developing world where people are struggling day to day to even get by or to feed their families, then it’s a much harder one to tackle, I guess.

Do you think this technology with cryptocurrency and blockchain that that will at least mean that whether you agree with the market based approach to tackling these problems, at least the money from carbon offsetting of other offsetting programs will get into the right hands of the people that are doing the work people that need it, rather than say, like a criminal gang or something like that, where it might be ending up now,


Pete Howson  32:11 

I mean, there’s a couple of reasons why I’m a bit dubious. And if I’ll give you an example that have come from outside the arena of Forestry.

So there’s a blockchain app developer in the US, called repo coin. Repo coin, it takes advantage of the fact that, in in the United States, it’s the situation around cars, like hire-purchase agreements.

So in the UK, if you don’t make a payment on your car, the finance company, the people who lent you the car, have to go to court and get a do a county court judgment against you. And then a bailiff can come around and force you to give him the keys and then they take the car away. That’s how they do things, it was done through the courts. In the US, the system is different. So you never own the car and finance company keeps a copy of your car keys. So if you don’t make the payments on your car, they can just come and drive your car away. But the issue is they don’t know where your car is because it’s not legal for them to put a tracker on the car and come and take it on track your movements. So they rely on this blockchain app called repo coin. And so what they ask anyone really, I mean, literally anyone with a smartphone, just download this program, this app, they go into poor neighbourhoods, and they take photos of the number plate and have posh cars and fancy cars. And they think, They think, how could anyone afford this in this neighborhood, then if it turns out that this person has failed to make payments on the car, the self executing smart contract thing tells the tow truck where the car is parked, and then it sends out the tow truck makes a payment to the tow truck driver, it makes a payment to the person who took the photo. And then the car is taken back to the dealership and they can then sell it someone else.

But obviously this this fix is really is riddled with injustice. Because Yeah, just lots of rich people going into poor, mainly black neighborhoods in America. And taking advantage of the fact that there’s poverty and inequality. And you know, this is sort of this could quite easily be the case, in terms of token economies in poor countries in Indonesia, where let’s say if this technology has been used to report people who cut down trees or or, or that’s sort of thing. Yeah, it has big social political implications, I think we really need to understand with any market based mechanism that maintains global capitalism, it’s based on this sort of win-win. You hear this all the time, it’s, you know, it’s a win-win, it’s a win for the environment, or win business.


Rob Wreglesworth  35:18 

We are going to have to start accepting that some of us are going to have to lose

Pete Howson  35:23 

There will be always be winners and always be losers, I think we just have to accept that. And I think we just have to be vigilant about who those losers are. And if there’s always going to be poor people that are marginalized, and people, you know, getting, having their grave starts done, because they did what they had to do. And in order to survive, and that is, you know, cutting rhino horns off and stuff like that. And that’s fail to see that actually, the the driver of all of this is the market for these things in, in other countries in rich in the global north, then we’re never going to transcend the underlying condition.


Rob Wreglesworth  36:04 

Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And I think we’re going to have to, it’s got to be some hard if we’re going to actually make progress in terms of things like climate change and, and aspects of deforestation and things like that. It’s going to be people in developed countries asking themselves some hard questions of, can they afford to pay more for products do they need to buy as many products as they are doing? And then I mean, that’s, that’s what I’ve heard a lot of people. blockchain will allow consumers to have more of an idea of the impact of their individual purchases, you know, when you go out and buy something that like a bar of soap, like you said, or shampoo, then it’s, it’s going to be traceable. And all the different elements of that product are going to be a lot easier to trace. And maybe that will have an impact on what we how we view, things that we’re buying, even though you want people to do things the right reason, if they know what the impact is of their purchases on a day to day basis, then maybe they’ll cut back on things they don’t necessarily need,


Pete Howson  37:08 

Potentially, potentially, or there’s this potential that if we know, and we can verify that carbon is being offset in another part of the world, and, you know, to offset our own consumption practices in in our own communities. And then we’re almost deferring responsibility to someone else. And it I think what it does is it creates this sense of naive in a way we’re just naive to the effects of our concern or disassociation


Rob Wreglesworth  37:46 

Yeah, absolutely disassociate, far away thing that we can just pay to, to get rid off of our conscience.


Pete Howson  37:54 

the fact that a lot of these blockchain fixes is that I’m they’re automated systems as well. So I mean, really, you’re not deferring this, this sense of responsibility to any human being, it’s just this sort of self executing code, which automatically kind of creates changes in other parts of the biosphere to account for your behaviour. And I think that, you know, that that kind of severance between us and our actions, I think, you know, that’s going to have profound impacts. As it is, yeah,


Rob Wreglesworth  38:33 

yeah. Sounds it sounds like it could be dangerous. We’re already two separated from the impacts, if we’re going to separate ourselves even more by putting AI in charge, who knows what kind of world will end up with, it sounds like used in the right way, there could be positives, but it’s like with anything, if we don’t tackle the, the true causes of the problems, then it’s just going to be deferring the issue and, and putting elsewhere.


I didn’t realize that you we’re so involved with the internet of things technology as well. And that’s quite interesting. If you got any particular, you mentioned a couple of examples, but are there any other particular examples of where that’s being applied for environmental causes.


Pete Howson  39:13 

One of the projects that I’ve been looking at is project which has been put together by a UK based tech company called bio carbon engineering. And, and then they are developing these drone re-seeding machines.

They have these efficient drones, that can stay up in the air for a long time. Now, and the idea is, is that you give some initial, kind of contextual information to the drone, the drone maps, an area of land, which has been degraded, using machine learning, AI will decide the best place to put trees. And then you can just leave it. So this drone, it’s semi autonomous right now, but the plan is that it will be fully autonomous, it can make decisions on the fly, and learn the best ways to regenerate landscapes using this sort of self executing code and artificial intelligence to do it, so, for me, this is like, profound, I mean, you could just put the drones in a place come back months later, and then you’ve got this sort of forest, which is going away, which is all based around autonomous tech, obviously, that, you know, massive implications for this, as I, as you mentioned earlier, I mean, this kind of deferring responsibility to technology and, and instead of us actually having to do the work of putting trees in the ground, you just have just different two machines.

I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. You know, there are plenty of people in Indonesia, which would gladly take the money to plant trees, we should perhaps give money to them. But again, I mean, we’ve got this issue about trust, and how do we ensure that actually, these trees are being planted? How can we verify that and this technology does it potentially, and you can still do it in a way that means that local people benefit rewards and compensation payments, these sorts of things. I mean, it’s, you know, it’s early days. So I mean, that’s why more research needs to be done to look at the sort of social political implications.


Rob Wreglesworth  41:44 

Like with any new technology, there’s really positive potential, but also, we’ve got to be aware of all the potential negative aspects and we can carry on business as usual, try looking out for these win wins all the time, when actually, we still need to, we can’t just not ask ourselves the hard questions and figure it out with another technological solution that’s going to have to be, as we always seem to try and do is as humans.


Pete Howson  42:10 

Yeah, I mean, I just think we need to highlight the fact that there is this massive contradiction about using crypto currencies as a fix for climate change. If you think that sort of 24% of emissions come from land use change in forestry in Indonesia alone. Where I do my research 840,000 hectares of forest every year, that’s half the size of Wales every year, a massive amount. However, at the same time, thinking about this sort of carbon footprint of the forestry industry to keep Bitcoin going, requires 55 terawatt hours per year. That is similar to Greece or Israel.


Pete Howson  43:32 

Some researchers have suggested that operating Bitcoin for the next few decades would take us over this to degree, two degrees of warming that would inevitably cause bring about this sort of climate change tipping point that we hear towards run away will mean that’s just using Bitcoin alone.

And so I mean, these two things are massive contradiction for me. We’re trying to solve the issues of embodied carbon emissions from forestry by using something which has a massive carbon footprint.

However, I think this is very simplistic. And the and whenever I give a talk on this, you’ll have someone bring up this fact that, you know, Bitcoin has a massive carbon footprint. But blockchain doesn’t have to be so energy intensive. And obviously, that any new technology improves and it gets more efficient.

And this technology isn’t going to stop. You know, humans are just as dumb today as we’ve worked five years ago, but technology gets better. And we need to get used to the fact that this technology is sticking around, it’s not going anywhere. So I mean, we can roll our eyes.

And I think if you look at Bitcoin, that was invented, as this form of technology that was meant to undermine the global banking big wigs, but right now, the technology is being co-opted, I think, by the very people that Bitcoin was meant to undermine.

And I think if if blockchains can be put to use to radically change society, which would, I think, be the first step in actually overcoming the problems of climate change. Now, I think we need to be really vigilant and consider sort of in whose interests are these changes being made. And I think we shouldn’t just presume that any radical disruptive technology like blockchain is the stabilizing things in everyone’s best interest in

Rob Wreglesworth  46:19 

Yeah, just one last question. I always ask guests just a bit of fun at the end. If you could put one message on a billboard that would go up all around the country, or just talk about the UK for now, but for one day that everyone could see with one motivational message on it, preferably related to the environment, but doesn’t have to be what would it be?


Pete Howson  46:41 

Well, I think just relating it to sort of technological advancement, I think as well, I think it would say something like,

“the reason no one lives on Mars is because it shit. That average temperatures there minus 50 degrees is violent, inhospitable wasteland, on the other hand Earth, is nice. And we should stay here. And we should keep it nice.”



Rob Wreglesworth

Rob is the head writer at Innovate Eco sharing knowledge and passion cultivated over 10 years working in the Environmental Sector. He is on a mission to build a community of people that are passionate about solving environmental problems.

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