This post originally appeared on Medium, as part of a series of posts discussing Radical Collaboration and Blockchain for Climate Accounting.

A rush of recent scientific studies have underlined the need for faster, more ambitious efforts to curb emissions and prepare for a changing climate. Human impacts have already warmed the world 1.0°C above pre-industrial levels, threatening human health, safety, and quality of life, and costing the US economy at least $240 billion a year over the past decade.

Scientists caution that while emissions need to begin to fall by 2020, countries’ current — and woefully inadequate — commitments put us on track for 3°C of warming by 2100. While a difference of 1 or 2 degrees may not seem like much, research shows that every degree — or half degree — of warming counts.

As the call to unlock climate change solutions grows increasingly urgent, cities, regions, businesses, investors, and civil society groups have begun to pledge their own efforts to mitigate, adapt to, and unlock financing to address climate change, often going beyond national goals and policies. In the U.S., a 4,000-strong coalition of business, city, state and civil society leaders announced their support of the Paris Accord, in the wake of President Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw the country from the agreement. Globally, more than 8000 cities, representing 16% of the global population, have made climate commitments, alongside more than 2000 companies, representing $21 trillion USD in revenue — an amount on par with the entire GDP of the United States.

These actors can help develop new low-carbon strategies and build momentum, encouraging their peers and national governments to act. Their commitments may also help lower greenhouse gas emissions beyond what national government policies will achieve on their own, helping to cap global warming temperature rise. But determining exactly how much these actors might contribute — and how likely they are to follow through on these pledges — remains difficult.

In many cases, messy or missing data obscures actors’ progress towards their goals and makes it challenging for researchers to predict their contributions to reducing emissions, enhancing adaptation, and growing climate finance. Many actors in developing economies, along with small or medium sized business around the world, lack the time and resources to implement reporting protocols and develop greenhouse gas inventories. This capacity gap creates large holes in the global understanding of climate action — hindering efforts to identify and share successful strategies or to unlock policy, financial, or technical support for these efforts.

Many non-national actors also track their process through a wide range of different platforms and networks. More than 7,000 cities in the European Union, for example, participate in the EU Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, while more than 6,000 companies report on their emissions and climate change efforts through CDP. Despite a general consensus on what needs to be measured and reported in order to understand and aggregate the impact of different climate efforts, the extent to which these protocols are followed varies within and across different platforms.

Several reports have attempted to make sense of these data and aggregate their collective dent on emissions. In September 2018, Data-Driven Yale, NewClimate Institute, and the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency released a first-of-its-kind effort to take stock of global mitigation commitments. The analysis focused on commitments with enough data to be quantifiable — from some 6,000 cities and regions, and over 2,000 companies — and found their pledges could reduce emissions by 1.5–2.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or roughly twice Canada’s annual emissions, in 2030.

The analysis, however, flags major areas of uncertainty. Will all of these commitments be fully implemented? If not, this estimate could be overly optimistic. What about the unquantifiable commitments left out of the analysis, or climate action that might not be reported — could these efforts reduce emissions even further? The report relies on several years of careful data collection, cleaning, and compiling — a difficult and resource-intensive effort to replicate. Given the imperative to act quickly on climate change, more nimble accounting is necessary.

Blockchain could be poised to provide this solution. Blockchain refers to a shared, immutable digital ledger that makes, records, and verifies transactions or agreements — a transparent database, where all participants can see what’s been entered into it or changed. While often discussed in the context of bitcoin or cryptocurrency, its potential applications range widely, spanning supply chain verification to digital voting. It could also help overcome some of the challenges involved in accounting for and tracking the decentralized climate pledges put forward by cities, regions, businesses, investors, and civil society groups.

We — as part of the Blockchain for Climate Action Tracking (B-CAT) Collective, a group of academic researchers, blockchain experts, and entrepreneurs — are exploring the technology’s applications to carbon tracking and accounting, from the local to global scale. Blockchain’s application to climate action tracking includes its potential to:

  • Incentivize reporting, particularly from actors and sectors where data are especially scarce. Blockchain reporting could be connected to access funds, know-how or support, making the cost and effort of reporting easier to take on. Combining blockchain with the Internet of Things (IoT) — for instance, connecting a sensor on a smokestack or renewable energy system with a blockchain reporting system — could automate parts of the reporting process for specific kinds of interventions and sectors.
  • Enhance the credibility of climate action from local governments, the private sector, and civil society. National and intergovernmental actors have voiced concern that subnational and non-state climate actions risk “greenwashing” and lack accountability. Blockchain could clearly and transparently track their progress, giving governments the confidence to build on and scale up these efforts in their own goals.
  • Improve the accuracy of scientific assessments and stocktakes of global greenhouse gas trajectories. A distributed ledger system could synthesize the many different sources of climate action information into a single place, enabling researchers to draw from one shared, consistent source. The blockchain system could also include algorithms or incentivize blockchain participants to fill data gaps and reconcile competing sources of information, speeding the data cleaning process.

In short, a blockchain approach could revolutionize climate action tracking, filling a critical gap in our understanding of how voluntary climate commitments actions are implemented, and what they achieve. By lowering measurement and reporting burdens, it could also help to make this process more inclusive and sustainable.

To kickstart these efforts, the B-CAT Collective has hosted several design sprints, bringing different stakeholders together to imagine possibilities for using blockchains to innovate how climate actions are recorded and analyzed. A hackathon in Singapore later this week will continue this process. Later this spring, we will launch a global collaborative challenge, where teams across different locations will work together to develop different elements of a potential blockchain framework. Stay tuned to or get in touch to become involved or learn more about the outcomes.

Photo by Banter Snaps on Unsplash.