In Brief
Blockchain, a distributed ledger system, is already being used in the music, autonomous vehicle, and supermarket industries. It also has the potential to contribute to a more sustainable environment.

What is Blockchain’s Potential?

Blockchains are secure, transparent and efficient. They record transactions as ‘blocks’ on a synchronized and distributive ledger — each one has to be ratified by more than one party, and is tied to the previous block. This means that supply chains involving more than one transaction can be traced along their entire sequence. If they are integrated with smart contracts, they could cut out middlemen. The most well-known manifestation of the blockchain is cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin; however, as it is a transaction system, it can be used for far more than currencies.

The applications of the system are wide-ranging. Imogen Heap plans to use it to ensure recording artists get fairer deals, stating, “Blockchain is the catalyst for change in the industry;” Toyota plans to use it to amass information about driverless cars from vehicle owners, fleet managers, and manufacturers in order to expedite the technology’s development; and Walmart is using it to identify contaminated food sources.

That Tunisia is putting their currency on the blockchain and Japan is accepting transactions using it at 260,000 stores by this summer testifies to the seriousness of its potential.

Using Blockchain for Sustainability

Among this revolutionary system’s most promising applications, though, is its potential use in sustainable governance systems, as Guillaume Chapron has argued on Nature. She details four ways in which it could improve governance and sustainability:

First, by making ownership concrete. As blockchains cannot be altered, manipulated, or changed without consent by all parties involved in the network, blockchain could prevent corrupt governments or companies from evicting or seizing the assets of people unfairly. Benben in Accra, Ghana, is already performing this task, along with Georgia and Honduras.

Second, by using its unique traceability. If Blockchain is used in conjunction with the internet of things, the efficiency, waste, and/or emissions of individual commodities, as well as entire company’s supply chains, could be securely and reliably logged. This would enable a reward structure for sustainability because it would provide a way to ensure there is no manipulation of figures or deliberate misinformation.

Third, by providing reliable payments. Blockchains do not require bank accounts — which is beneficial to people in countries that lack the infrastructure to supply them. This would ensure that money intended to be a reward for conservation, or charity payments to specific causes, does not disappear into unintended pockets through bureaucratic labyrinths. Blockchained money could be released automatically to the correct parties in response to meeting environmental targets. Another potential use in this sector is the direct trading of energy, rather than having to rely on middlemen’s conversions or evaluations.

Fourth, by making the corrupt accountable. This can apply on a number of levels, from the governmental to the individual. Votes could be registered on blockchains, making electoral manipulation extremely difficult — or, on a more personal level, evidence could not be tampered with, nor deals changed or fiddled with.

Blockchain can work in tandem with companies advocating sustainable development, governmental improvement, and individual empowerment in a variety of ways — freeing people from webs of complicated contracts, bullying by those in power, and the lack of accountability that often stems from the complexity of the digital age.