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Doing good for society and the planet (an Earth Day FinTech update)

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It was Earth Day on Monday, and a national holiday in many nations as they observed what Christians call Easter. Whilst Sri Lankans mourned the fatal losses on the Easter Sunday church gatherings, many observed the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. One of the leading lights of the modern environmental movement has to be Sir David Attenborough, whose latest BBC Series Climate Change – The Facts sends shockwaves. Or should.

A few of those facts:

  • The global average temperature for the first 10 months of 2018 was 0.98C above the levels of 1850-1900, according to five independently maintained global data sets.
  • The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, with 2015-2018 making up the top four, the WMO says.
  • If we add up all the promises to cut emissions made by countries that have signed the Paris climate agreement, the world would still warm by more than 3C by the end of this century.
  • The countries emitting the most greenhouse gases by quite a long way are China and the US. Together they account for more than 40% of the global total, according to 2017 data from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
  • Almost all (95%) of cities facing extreme climate risks are in Africa or Asia, a report by risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft has found.
  • The single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet is to modify your diet to include less meat - according to recent studies.

On that last point, another saving grace would be to fly less. That’s a difficult one for me, as I fly around all the time and justify it on the basis that the aeroplane will take off to the destination whether I’m on it or not. I guess if we all made a mass commitment to not be on those planes, we could save a lot of emissions.

Anyhow, not everyone takes notice of the overwhelming case for sustainability but hey, at least Ant Financial does.

That may sound strange for a Chinese firm, as China emits more pollution than any other country in the world and contributes over a quarter of the gases causing climate change. However, I guess that’s why it’s high on the agenda for the influential financial firm. According to the latest press released from my friends in Hangzhou, Ant Financial has:

  • attracted 500 million users to engage in low carbon emission activities on the Ant Forest platform, where users grow virtual trees in the Alipay app;
  • the virtual trees, nourished by “green energy” originating from users’ green activities, have been turned into 100 million real trees planted in China’s most arid areas in Gansu Province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and other areas;
  • the trees planted cover a total area of 933 square kilometres, which is equivalent to 130,000 football pitches; and
  • the tree-planting activities have also created 180,000 jobs and RMB 27 million in income by the end of 2018.

That’s impressive work as the system encourages users to avoid doing things that increase carbon emissions. So, if you take a bus to work rather than a taxi, you get points towards planting your virtual tree which, when you get enough points, becomes a real tree in real life. You get more points the more environmentally friendly your lifestyle becomes so, if you walk or cycle to work, you save even more than if you took the bus.

In fact, there are 19 different things you can change in your lifestyle to be more eco-friendly from making online payments to going paperless in the office to using disposable cardboard cutlery instead of plastic to recycling and more. You can then claim carbon points for the actions you’ve performed every day and save them into your Alipay account. These points are used to water and grow your virtual tree in Ant Forest and, when the virtual tree grows tall enough through your constant watering of carbon points, Ant Financial plants a real tree for you.

Watch this video to see how it works:

With half a billion people using Ant Forest, it is now the world’s largest green initiative with fun elements, whilst doing good for society and the planet. For example, part of the fun of the game is that you can steal points from your friends, so your tree gets planted faster, and there’s even a live camera feed in the newly planted forests so that Ant Forest participants, of whom more than half are millennials, can see exactly what their efforts have resulted in.

Since the launch of the Ant Forest in-app mini-program (it's embedded within the Alipay app) in August 2016, it had 200 million users after just six months (when I last blogged about it). By my estimate, that means that today, using the latest figures, Ant Financial’s gaming app is saving over 30,000 tons of carbon emissions every day or 10 million tons a year.

This gets interesting as the app idea came from one employee one day, who wondered if people’s lifestyles would change if they followed an app that encouraged their choices – food, transport, entertainment, etc – were geared towards being more green. Yep, from one person’s idea a whole team came behind the project to make a whole company encourage a whole country change their habits to reverse climate change.

Are you a fan yet?

Well, just in case you’re still procrastinating, in addition to planting trees, Ant Forest is exploring other innovative social corporate responsibility (SCR) models. In September 2017, Ant Forest launched a land protection project, where users can “adopt” or virtually claim five square meters of forestland and protect the it with NGOs.

At the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Ant Financial and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) also jointly launched the Green Digital Finance Alliance (GDFA), to explore the possibility of promoting Ant Forest carbon accounts globally.

Ant Financial also has more than one app for social good*. For example, their oldest platform is the Alipay Love Donation Platform, better known as Alipay Love.  This platform originated from an online donation service that a group of Alipay engineers built in 2008, in an effort to help survivors of a devastating earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan Province. Alipay Love developed from there into a complete in-app mini-program designed for donation giving to charities and more and, over the years, many more charity programs were added to the platform. In fact, so far, users have made over 1.2 billion individual donations on Alipay Love, helping over 1,400 NGOs and philanthropic organizations.

The Alipay Love platform is also the one that introduced blockchain technology to improve transparency in the donation process. The issue here is that giving money to charity in any country creates questions: do the intended recipients get the cash? Who is involved in distributing aid? How is the money allocated?

As a method to resolve this, Alipay developed blockchain-based systems to provide clear proof of how your money goes from your Alipay account to your chosen charity. Interestingly, they tell me the data shows that the time needed to complete a donation was shortened by half for charity programs that opted to use blockchain technology on the platform. This is because the platform demonstrates how digital technology can be used to enhance trust and improve efficiency for charity programs, and thus attract wider participation from the public.

All in all, I think that Alibaba and Ant Financial are setting a fine example of how to get things moving towards things that are good for society and good for the planet. I saw this when I visited Hangzhou and am very aware that the strap-line good for society and good for the planet is part of the values and vision behind the companies founded by Jack Ma.

And just to wrap up that one, did you ever hear what Jack thinks about climate change? If not, who better to interrogate him about it than some guy called Barack (video from November 2015).




* Ant Financial also have another gaming system called Ant Farm. In this game, you have a world like FarmVille – remember that one on Facebook? – and you compete with other folks in the social network to raise a virtual chicken. You feed the chicken by gathering grain associated with each payment you make using Alipay. Oh, and just in case you forget to play the game for a while, beware as your chicken will run away to get food from your social friends if you don’t feed it often enough. The more you tend to your virtual chicken, the more eggs it will lay. You can then use the eggs to buy things on Alibaba or donate the chicken’s eggs to your preferred charities. Because this encourages points to make prizes, it is not seen as a philanthropic venture in the same was as Ant Forest or Alipay Love.


Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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