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Blockchains: Environmental Hype or Hope?

July 2018

Washington, DC: The hype around blockchains—the programming protocol originally created for the Bitcoin—is bidirectional, ranging from apocalyptic predictions of bitcoin energy use that will “destroy our clean energy future” to rosy scenarios that “blockchain technology can usher in a halcyon age of prosperity for all.” The question for policymakers, therefore, is how to ensure that the environment profits in the end.

The July/August issue of The Environmental Forum looks at the challenges and opportunities presented by blockchain technology, and it urges environmental professionals to take part in an ongoing conversation with software developers and other stakeholders that will shape the social contract affecting the blockchain’s environmental costs and benefits—plus shape emerging policy and governance responses.

“Operating computer networks requires energy and materials resources, and with trillions of transactions per day, this adds up. That is the environmental debit side of the blockchain ledger,” explains David Rejeski, Director of the Environmental Law Institute’s Technology, Innovation, and the Environment Program.  “But,” he adds, “the blockchain may be the key to creating environmentally efficient business models and platforms, especially in today’s information-intensive, transactional economy dominated by sharing platforms, e-commerce, and the expanding Internet of Things. In other words, there is an environmental credit side of the ledger too.”

In Blockchain Salvation, authors David Rejeski and ELI research associate Lovinia Reynolds offer three reasons why the environmental community needs to be involved in charting the future of blockhains. The first arises from its implications for energy and materials use and associated resource and pollution impacts. The second oppositely comes from its potential applications for a wide range of environmental challenges. Finally, there are governance issues raised by its use, which could range from facilitating standard setting and interoperability, to creating codes of conduct, to guaranteeing transparency and security, and, finally, to ensuring a more robust public dialogue on the up and down sides of the technology.

Blockchain Salvation can be downloaded for free at https://www.eli.org/sites/default/files/tef/featuredarticle/TEFBlockchainJuly2018.pdf

David Rejeski is available for interview.