How Blockchain Can Help the Environment
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How Blockchain Can Help the Environment

A STUDY BY MIRIAM ALLENA SUGGESTS A PERVASIVE SYSTEM OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROLS BASED ON NEW TECHNOLOGY, WHICH ALLOWS CITIZEN ASSOCIATIONS AND INDIVIDUALS TO SUPPORT PUBLIC AUTHORITIES IN THE MONITORING PROCESS

Blockchain, criticized in the past for its enormous energy consumption and the consequent emissions of greenhouse gases, has become more eco-friendly because, in its most technologically advanced forms and in permissioned mode (with a limited number of nodes), it consumes a fraction of the energy of an open blockchain, such as the one that creates bitcoins. But that's not all: according to a study by Miriam Allena, soon to be published in Environmental Law Review (the oldest environmental law journal in the United States), it can also help the environment and brings us closer to the ideal of a participatory administrative law.
 
The study suggests, in fact, a pervasive system of environmental controls, compatible with both American and European legislation, based on blockchain.
 
«Blockchain is, in short, a system of data registration with widespread validation, which ensures what I call in my paper 'notarized transparency'», says Allena, «a system that returns transparent and validated data». In the recent past, it has been hypothesized to use it in private and contract law, but its application to public law seemed problematic. A recent research period of 6 months at the University of California at Berkeley, in close contact with computer scientists and technology experts, convinced Prof. Allena of the potential of the tool.
 
The current system of controls on private environmental activities (polluting emissions, compliance with standards, etc.) is conceived as pervasive, but it clashes with the lack of resources and structures. A system based on blockchain would allow to involve citizens and associations in order to ensure the formal correctness and timeliness of data. «Sensors and data collection systems already exist», explains Prof. Allena. «With blockchain there would also be a system of collective validation». In other words, all non-business nodes could verify that data is formally correct (in the case of emissions, for example: have all gases been gauged?) and made public in the required time (and not only when conditions are favorable). The lack of one of these requirements would be a wake-up call, justifying targeted inspections by public administrations.
 
The system would overcome the shortcomings of the command and control tools on the one hand and of the market instruments on the other. As far as the first case is concerned, among the nodes of the network that validate data there would also be environmental associations, groups of citizens and various administrations. Since it is no longer a binary control (regulated/regulator), the problem of the so-called ‘regulatory capture’ is overcome. «Let's think of a highly polluting enterprise, that is also essential for the economy of a territory», explains Prof. Allena. «Under the current system, even when they are aware of the environmental damage, politicians may hesitate to intervene so as not to lose consensus, but with a blockchain and a multiplicity of actors involved, the civic conscience would rise faster».
 
As for market instruments, environmental certifications, e.g., are based on a system of private certifiers paid for, as a rule, by the same subject who wants to obtain the certificate. The multiplicity of players of a blockchain significantly mitigates the risks of collusion and makes it possible to imagine a system in which it is the community that certifies the possession of certain formal requirements prescribed by law.
 
With the new system, public administration does not lose, but changes its role: it is no longer the sole controller, but it has the burden of making registration on blockchain compulsory and sanctioning its absence. Technology also does not change legislation, but makes it more effective. «There must always be good legislation at the base», comments Prof. Allena, referring to transparency. «Blockchain is a tool that can make data more transparent where the law provides that they must be made public. From this point of view, in Europe, thanks to the Aarhus Convention, we are much further ahead than in the United States, where companies can rely much more widely on the confidentiality of some information to oppose the publication of environmental data».
 
Miriam Allena, Blockchain Technology for Environmental Compliance: Towards a “Choral” Approach, forthcoming in Environmental Law Review.

by Fabio Todesco

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