Turning carbon credits into crypto won’t fix climate change.
Adam Neumann is back. The co-founder and former CEO of WeWork and subsequent subject of the podcast-turned-TV-series WeCrashed now says he wants to fix climate change — with crypto.
Specifically, Neumann wants to put carbon credits on the blockchain. But making carbon credits easier to buy and sell does nothing to solve the real problem with carbon credits and offsets, which is that they’re broken. More easily trading a broken product doesn’t make it any less broken.
Neumann’s new company is called Flowcarbon, and it has big ambitions, which will be backed by $70 million from the crypto arm of the venture capital firm a16z. On its website, Flowcarbon says that the current system of buying and selling carbon credits is built on an “opaque and fractured market infrastructure” and that the carbon credits themselves have “little liquidity, accessibility, and price transparency.” In other words, the problem is the carbon credit market, and the way to fix it is by making it easier to trade carbon credits.
This is a classic argument for a crypto company, by the way. The answer for everything in the crypto world seems to be greater commodification. But when it comes to saving the planet (as with most things in life), that’s not necessarily true.
Carbon credits and offsets are two sides of the same coin, and the terms are often used interchangeably. A carbon offset refers to a project that reduces carbon dioxide emissions (preserving forests is a popular one), and carbon offsets generate carbon credits. And both trade in units that represent one metric ton of carbon dioxide. Flowcarbon is supposed to work through the creation of a new crypto token, called the Goddess Nature Token, or GNT. Those tokens would represent carbon credits, and Flowcarbon users looking to trade carbon credits would do so by buying and selling those tokens.
That second part has the potential to be problematic: Unlike stocks or cryptocurrencies, carbon offsets ultimately need to be taken off the market in order for them to have any lasting, traceable impact on a company or individual’s carbon footprint. Google, for example, “retires” any carbon offsets it buys, putting a stop to the trading so nobody else can claim their climate benefits. (How effective those offsets ever were is debatable.) Flowcarbon users have the option to retire their tokens, redeem them for classic carbon credits off the blockchain, or keep trading them. If a Flowcarbon user were to keep the carbon, well, flowing by trading away their carbon credits, they can’t claim to have offset any of their own emissions.
“I think they’re trying to solve something that’s not a problem,” Robert Mendelsohn, a professor of forest policy and economics at Yale, told Recode. “The kinds of things that blockchains are good at, which is sort of just making sure nothing gets lost, isn’t really a problem with the current market. That’s not where they’re broken. Where they’re broken is the credits themselves may not actually be causing any reduction in carbon.”
As my colleague Umair Irfan wrote in 2020, one of the key principles for making a good carbon credit is “additionality,” or ensuring that a carbon offset project will actually lead to a reduction of emissions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. This is trickier than it sounds: A 2020 Bloomberg investigation found that carbon offsets sold by the Nature Conservancy, one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the world, were based on forested properties that likely would have been preserved even without extra funding. In other words, the emissions reductions from those trees would have happened anyway, making them invalid as carbon offsets.
That’s just one example. Carbon credits and offsets frequently miss the mark, and in some cases can even cause additional harm to forests. Carbon offsets that don’t provide any additional emissions reductions allow companies that buy them to claim they’ve made a difference to their carbon footprint without having any real impact. “They haven’t offset anything,” Mendelsohn explained. “They’ve just got this worthless piece of paper saying they got a credit. You could put that credit onto the blockchain, and it would be just as worthless.”
It’s not clear how Flowcarbon would make carbon offsets more useful or trustworthy. Nicole Shore, a Flowcarbon spokesperson, said in an email that the credits backing the GNT “follow the criteria of the global carbon market” and come from one of four large carbon credit registries. The company also says the carbon credits behind its token have been “certified,” but it doesn’t detail how that certification process happens, or if it has a verification system that’s any different from the current carbon credit market.
The difficulty of verifying carbon credits means it can take a while for more of them to come on the market. As more companies become interested in purchasing credits to offset their emissions, that can create a bottleneck.
“The problem with the current markets is nothing to do with how we can trade these more effectively,” said Anil Madhavapeddy, who is an associate professor of computer science and technology at Cambridge University and the director of the Cambridge Center for Carbon Credits. “We just do not have enough supply.”
Madhavapeddy, like Flowcarbon, is working on building a blockchain-based solution for carbon credits. But unlike Flowcarbon, he isn’t interested in building a marketplace for those credits. Instead, he’s focused on verifying they’re real by using satellite imagery and remote sensing technology to monitor carbon offset projects around the world and recording the results on the blockchain. Madhavapeddy hopes that technology will make it easier to get more carbon credits on the market more quickly.
Instead of building a whole new marketplace for carbon credits, for now, Madhavapeddy just wants to help ensure that those credits are based on something that will have a real impact. “Because the supply is so constrained, you don’t need to tokenize all these things,” Madhavapeddy told Recode. “It takes years for new [carbon offset] projects to kick off, so every marketplace constructed right now is just shuffling the same old pieces around.”
Crypto’s climate credit gold rush isn’t going unnoticed by the traditional players in the market, either. Verra, the world’s largest carbon-offset registry, announced this week that it will no longer allow its credits to be used as the basis for crypto tokens. Active crypto markets for carbon credits, Verra said, create too much confusion over who should get final credit for carbon reductions.
Once carbon credits become more readily available — and verifiably trustworthy — it’s possible companies like Flowcarbon could be key to making carbon credits and offsets more easily accessible to regular folks who are interested in offsetting their carbon emissions. But let’s not forget what happened last time Adam Neumann promised big things when founding a company with a questionable business model. WeWork speculated on how flexible our relationship with our built environment could be, and while it remains to be seen if Flowcarbon is any different, we can’t afford to leave our relationship with the natural world open to similar speculation.
Commodifying nature is part of what led us to our climate mess in the first place. Perhaps it’s time to learn from our mistakes.