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Alibaba, the world’s largest fintech company, is using Alipay to tap into mobile games to fight desertification, greening China in the process.

China’s Gobi desert–the fastest growing desert on the planet–transforms more than 3600 kilometers of grasslands into inhospitable wastelands every year. Its expansion has eaten away hectares of agricultural lands and human habitats besides creating unbridled sandstorms that batter cities located near its edge. The Chinese government has been fighting the desertification with ambitious programs like ‘the great green wall’ creating a 4500 km tree belt on the edge of the Gobi, where more than 66 billion trees have been planted so far.  

Now an app called Ant Forest by the world’s largest financial technology company Ant Financial Services Group (Alipay) is sweeping across China rewarding its millions of users for their low-carbon lifestyle by planting trees on behalf of them to stop the desertification. Ant Forest rewards its users with green energy points for choosing low-carbon activities like taking public transportation, recycling waste, using less plastic, etc. Once users have earned enough points, they can plant a virtual tree in the app. For every single tree planted in this app, Alipay plants a tree near the Gobi desert.

Unlike traditional government-led forestation campaigns, Ant Forest is highly interactive and transparent. Users can choose different types of drought-resistant plants based on the number of points they earned, and monitor the growth of their trees in real time using satellite imagery. They can also share or pool their points with their friends to plant a bigger tree.

Alipay has partnered up with conservation groups like China Green Foundation (CGF) and the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) to materialise the tree plantation drive. 

Over 500 million people–more than 6% of the world’s total population–have signed up for the app while Alipay has so far planted over 100 million real trees in Inner Mongolia and Gansu province, which share borders with the Gobi desert. The newly planted trees cover over 1000 sq km–an area almost the size of Hong Kong. The users’ behaviour changes and low-carbon lifestyle have reduced carbon emissions by more than three million tons so far.  

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How the World's Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

How the World’s Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

How the World's Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

How the World’s Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

Screenshots of Ant Forest

Experts say that Alipay has gamified carbon footprint tracking and mitigation making sustainable living fun for millions of people in China. The app has tapped into the addictive nature of mobile games to reduce China’s carbon emissions.  

“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,” says Ant Forest’s Chief Executive Officer Eric Jing. “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.”

Ant Forest has received high praise from conservationists across the world for their innovative approach. “This (the app) shows that digital finance holds a huge untapped power to mobilise people in support of sustainable development and the fight against climate change,” says Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. “And this power is literally at our fingertips through our mobile devices.” 

According to a 1982 regulation, every Chinese citizen aged above 11 is legally obliged to plant three to five trees every year. Now, a large number of people use Ant Forest to fulfill their obligations. The app, which is now officially recognised by the National Afforestation Commission (NAC), allows users to apply for the certificate issued by NAC.

China has been tackling its increasing carbon footprint with aggressive afforestation, and Ant Forest’s digital clout is helping the country to achieve its 2035 target of increasing its forest cover by 26%. 

A regressive agricultural policy might be hindering Europe’s quest to become carbon neutral. 

The Problem with the European Union’s Agricultural Policy

The European Union claims to be a leader in implementing climate change mitigation strategies. Under the Paris agreement, it has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% and produce 32% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The European Commission’s new President Ursula von der Leyen wants to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. 

However, the EU has ignored a key area in its fight against climate change: agriculture, which is responsible for about 10% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), experts warn, encourages environmentally destructive farming practices that cause large scale emissions and the degradation of natural resources at an alarming rate. The continent’s rich biodiversity has also suffered because of those practices.

Launched in 1962 to sustain the EU’s food supplies by boosting the productivity of farmlands, the CAP is a cornerstone of Europe’s agricultural policy. With a budget of more than €58 billion a year, it provides financial support to some 12 million farmers across Europe.

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A report by Alliance Environnement, a union of environmental advocacy groups, finds that the CAP has allowed farmers to plough up permanent grasslands, thus releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also allowed large-scale cultivation on peatlands which store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. 

Wetlands in Europe were species-rich habitats performing valuable ecosystem services such as flood protection, water quality enhancement, food chain support, and carbon sequestration. However, the CAP encouraged farmers to convert vast tracts of wetlands into agricultural lands causing significant biodiversity loss. Intensive use of pesticides has also led to species loss in many parts of Europe including France, which receives the largest agricultural subsidy under CAP.

An investigation by Greenpeace revealed that CAP funds provide direct incentives for the widespread use of harmful and polluting agricultural practices. More than half of the farms examined by Greenpeace in seven EU countries had received payments totaling €104 million despite being the highest emitters of ammonia in their countries. Ammonia runoff from fertilisers and slurry manure has led to the rapid growth of algae in rivers, lakes, and oceans in Europe choking plants and animals of oxygen as well as causing air pollution.

Another report reveals the EU’s farming sector has shown no decline in emissions since 2010 due to a lack of effective environmental regulations in the CAP. Even if an individual state wanted to introduce new regulations in the agricultural sector, CAP provisions would not allow for them.

According to WWF, CAP has done very little to effectively support low-carbon and nature-friendly farming because it only supports market-driven high-input farming practices whilst disregarding climate commitments. It has demanded major reforms in the EU’s agricultural policy to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.

“We can achieve wins for both the climate and the farming sector’s sustainability by cutting emissions rapidly, and adopting practices that help store more carbon in soils and landscapes,” says Imke Lübbeke, head of climate and energy, WWF. “The EU’s draft long term climate strategy shows that agriculture can and should do more to achieve net-zero emissions in Europe.”

Efforts to fix CAP are hampered by a lack of political consensus among the member states. A recent meeting of EU agriculture ministers to revise the CAP with green architecture and eco-schemes failed to yield any positive results. The new amendments and proposals are a source of political divisiveness among the member states.

China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, are making our planet greener through land management, a recent study by NASA reveals. With their aggressive afforestation and agricultural expansion, both countries lead the world in ‘greening’– a term used by climate scientists to describe Earth’s increasing vegetation cover in recent decades.

The two countries have created one-third of the word’s new forests, croplands, and other forms of vegetation in the last two decades, the study published in Nature Sustainability revealed. China, which has 6.3% of the globe’s landmass, alone accounts for 25% of the global net increase in new vegetation.

The data collected by the researchers using Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS)– a NASA satellite imaging sensor- shows that 42% of the greening in China comes from afforestation while 32% comes from newly cultivated farmlands. In India, 82% of the greening comes from new croplands and 4.4% from new forests.

The research also revealed that besides land management strategies adopted by China and India, indirect factors like climate change, CO2 fertilization, nitrogen deposition, and recovery from natural disturbances also lead to the greening. However, they could be a less prominent driver of global greening as compared to human-driven land use.

Green represents regions of net greening and yellow, red and purple showing regions with net browning. White areas depict barren land, permafrost, ice, wetlands, and built-up areas.

The Greening

A group of 15 scientists from various universities of China, France, Germany, the US, and India collected satellite data from MODIS, which mapped Earth’s surface from 2000 to 2017 onboard NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. Their analysis revealed the exponential growth of vegetation in China and India.

China’s massive-scale tree plantations on the low-productive regions of the country lead to a 16% global net greening. In just a single decade–2000-2010, the country increased its total forest area by 19% covering 434,000 Sqkm of land.

China achieved this remarkable feat by implementing a series of programmes to conserve forests, mitigate soil erosion, air pollution, and climate change.  Since the 1990s, China has invested more than $100bn in afforestation programmes and, according to its government, planted more than 35bn trees across 12 Chinese provinces. China’s forestry expenditure per hectare is over three times higher than the global average and has long exceeded that of the US and Europe.

The rapid agricultural growth in China with the help of hybrid cultivars, multiple cropping, irrigation, fertiliser use, pest control, better quality seeds, farm mechanisation, credit availability, and crop insurance programmes also paved the way for a greener nation.

The study concludes that China’s man-made vegetation in the last two decades is equal to that of the greening of Russia, the US and Canada combined.

“China engineered ambitious programmes,” the author says, “to conserve and expand forests with the goal of mitigating land degradation, air pollution, and climate change.”

Greening from forest expansion in China in two decades

The research revealed that India accounts for 6.8% of the global net increase in vegetation cover, with the new croplands contributing the most. This is roughly equal to that in the US or Canada – which both had three times more vegetated areas in 2000.

India’s green revolution which brought massive changes in agricultural production is attributed to a rapidly grown harvesting area throughout the country.

Human Land Use

The data analysis has revealed that the role of human land use in increasing vegetation on a global scale is much more important than previously understood.

Downplaying the contribution of human land use, climate scientists had previously argued that greening was a result of increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. But a key finding of the research paper debunks the argument and states “human land use” has been “a dominant driver” of global greening since 2000l.  The greening on Earth in recent decades has had more to do with direct human interference than the indirect effect of climate change or the CO2 fertilisation effect.

Six out of seven “greening clusters” found by the research team “overlap” with regions known to have highly intensive agriculture and human-land use. But regions like Amazone, where human land use is notably low, the rate of greening is much lower.

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