03 Nov 2017 Story Climate change

China’s Ant Financial shows how digital clout can fight climate change

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step is a Chinese proverb that has long made its way into the public consciousness. Ant Financial is taking this proverb and amplifying it to help bring an end to climate change – by using its digital clout to ensure tens of millions of steps to cut out greenhouse gas emissions.

The company, which runs a mobile and online payment service with 520 million users, last August started the Ant Forest Programme, which introduces a simple idea that can change the world.

The programme allows users to record their daily carbon emissions – calculating, for example, whether they walk or drive to a destination, or pay a bill online instead of travelling to an office to do so. The saved energy is turned into a virtual tree, which grows as more carbon is saved. When the tree is big enough, Ant’s partners plant real trees in the desert.

“This shows that digital finance holds a huge untapped power to mobilize people in support of sustainable development and the fight against climate change.” – Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment

This idea, which taps into the addictive urge we feel when playing games on our digital devices, had attracted an astonishing 200 million users by January this year – in part because people invited their friends to compete with them to see who was greener.

“Two hundred million people – that’s three percent of the world’s population – are greening their lives because they are getting immediate information about the environmental impact of their choices in a fun and competitive way,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

“This shows that digital finance holds a huge untapped power to mobilize people in support of sustainable development and the fight against climate change. And this power is literally at our fingertips through our mobile devices.”

Some 10 million trees have been planted, and an estimated 1.22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide have been saved by the accumulated tiny behaviour changes in an individual’s life. More emissions will be reduced as more people sign up, and they make larger adjustments to their lifestyles.

This example clearly shows how fintech – technology used to improve financial services – can not only green the daily lives of millions of people, but help shift the massive weight of the global financial system behind sustainable development. 

Make no mistake: sustainable development needs money, and a lot of it. As things stand, we are far short of the trillions of dollars needed to head off climate change and other environmental challenges such as pollution and unrestrained natural resource use. To meet this challenge, we need ambition, innovation, commitment and collaboration. Digital finance is an essential part of this process.

On this one platform alone, around 3 per cent of the world’s population – most of them under 30 – has signed up to make changes that will benefit the planet.

The first stages of the forest programme are only part of Ant’s commitment to this new, smarter way of doing business. The initiative is also aimed at mobilizing resources for green investments and providing individuals, enterprises and others the chance to engage directly in sustainable development.

Along with UN Environment’s Inquiry into the Design of Sustainable Financial System, Ant was a founding partner of the Green Digital Finance Alliance, which is committed to using digital technology to advance green finance in lending, investment and insurance.

“Increasing pressures on the environment are damaging ecosystems and threatening the lives of millions of people. But the world is fighting back,” said Eric Jing, CEO of Ant Financial. “Emerging digital technologies are enabling a bottom-up approach to the battle – avoiding greenhouse gas emissions gram by gram, bus fare by bus fare, day by day.

“This is essential to complement top-down action, such as the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development. The success of the programme is a sign of the powerful change we can create when people are provided with the opportunity to live a greener life.”

And Ant is not alone. Green finance is a growing global movement, as people realize sustainable investments are going to be the ones that bring long-term returns. Pioneering countries from China to France and the UK have launched initiatives to boost flows of private capital for climate and sustainability. The G20 has set up a green finance study group, bringing together finance ministries and central banks. And last year saw the green bond market grow by more than US$80 billion to US$170 billion – the best showing since its launch in 2007.

There can be no doubt, though, that Ant has shown the way forward for digital finance. On this one platform alone, around 3 per cent of the world’s population – most of them under 30 – has signed up to make changes that will benefit the planet. Just think what we could do if the same approach was taken across other digital platforms.

Climate change is currently being eroded by millions of tiny cuts. By tapping into the devices we use every day, we can make it billions and secure a bright future for humanity.