The foolishness of a carbon-negative blockchain

With the experience of ‘fortress conservation’, poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the CAMPA philosophy in India, it’s hard not to think that the idea of carbon offsets is stupid. This mode of ‘climate action’ has been most popular in the US and the EU, given that carbon offsets are essentially status-quoist: they only remove carbon downstream, after the activity that released it has been performed, and doesn’t lower the demand for carbon or carbon-producing activities (i.e. consumption) in the first place.

With the emergence of entities that collect carbon debt from multiple sources and offset them through afforestation drives, many organisations and companies now claim to be carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative by simply passing on their debt and paying a fee to have it offset. And now, dispiritingly, even cryptocurrency enterprises have joined this party, with advertisements of carbon-negative blockchains that continue to ignore the fact that crypto is still a solution looking for a problem.

It’s constantly baffling how a community composed mostly of rich, white libertarians, presumably with a good education culminating in some of California’s or Massachusetts’s finest institutes of study, fails to acknowledge the inefficiency of a financial system more cumbersome and energy-intensive than the one already in place, sustained by selfindulgence and inflated promises of sociofinancial revolutions and carbon-neutrality, all in the name of liberties that few others care for.

Now specifically, crypto hitching its wagon to the international carbon-offset programme is doubly problematic because it’s two status-quoist enterprises working together to further erode climate and social justice.

Crypto proponents, notably the Ethereum community, have deflected arguments against the energy demand of cryptocurrency transactions by claiming they’re already implementing or planning to implement the ‘proof of stake’ over the ‘proof of work’ model of verification. I’m sure you’ve heard that to earn bitcoins, you use your computer to solve some difficult math problems, with the coins as your reward. Your computer’s work is your proof of work – the thing you use to demonstrate that you’ve earned the coins. ‘Proof of stake’ demands that you already own some coins – or, more generically, tokens – to perform transactions on the blockchain that the tokens are already part of.

Proponents of the ‘proof of stake’ model like to say that it’s less energy-intensive than ‘proof of work’, which is true in the same way the Delhi government plans to cut traffic pollution by asking drivers to turn off their cars’ engines at red lights. This is because ‘proof of stake’ has its own big problems, ranging from concerns that it’s a scam to, more pertinent to this post, being rooted like ‘proof of work’ in the more fundamental tenet of ‘proof of preexisting wealth’. To quote Everest Pipkin writing in March this year:

Proof of stake is, and always has been, valuable as a bait and switch, but there are other, obvious problems with PoS (and various other proofs), which are that to more or less degrees they don’t address any of the problems with access to cryptocurrency relying on existing wealth.

Proof of stake coins use a variety of mechanisms to determine “lottery ticket” allocation, but it essentially boils down to: 1 coin in your wallet, one lottery ticket. Proof of capacity gives you a lottery ticket per available hard drive segment. Proof of assignment gives you a lottery ticket per smart device / internet of things consumer electronics good you own. Proof of donation gives you a lottery ticket per donation to a charitable organization.

I’m sure you’re seeing the problem here – there is not a schema that doesn’t reward those who already are already wealthy, who are already bought in, who already have excess capital or access to outsized computational power. Almost universally they grant power to the already powerful.

This is also a climate issue.

Climate justice is social justice. This is true in that the worst impacts of climate collapse are felt by those with no means to avoid them, while those with resources easily fuck on off to somewhere where they don’t have to see it.

But climate justice must mean giving leadership and power to those who will bear the worst effects of climate catastrophe, including the very young, those living in the global south, those living rurally in coastal areas or farming regions, those living in poverty, those in marginalized communities, and particularly to indigenous communities who have actual experience in managing complex local ecosystems for generations without creating spiraling, resource-extractative devastation.

And carbon-offsets just make a false promise to make this better. Trees planted today to offset carbon emitted today will only sequester that carbon at optimum efficiencies many years later – when carbon emissions from the same project, if not the rest of the world, are likely to be higher. Second, organisations promising to offset carbon often do so in a part of the world significantly removed from where the carbon was originally released. Arguments against the ‘Miyawaki method’ suggest that you can only plant plants up to a certain density in a given ecosystem, and that planting them even closer together won’t have better or even a stagnating level of effects – but will in fact denigrate the local ecology. Scaled up to the level of countries, this means (I assume) that emitting many tonnes of carbon dioxide over North America and Europe and attempting to have all of that sequestered in the rainforests of South America, Central Africa and Southeast Asia won’t work, at least not without imposing limitations on the latter countries’ room to emit carbon for their own growth as well as on how these newly created ‘green areas’ should be used.

Too many people also continue to maintain the colonial-era view that planting trees is the answer even if it means we degrade ecosystems that don’t want trees – helped along by one wildly misleading 2019 study that pro-offset groups have cited more often than they have cited a big correction it received a year later. Ultimately, by bundling so many injustices together, crypto + carbon-offsets is just a bigger racket.

Featured image credit: Michael Dziedzic/Unsplash.