When Companies Promise to Plant Trees, Blockchain Could Ensure They Do

The technology that powers cryptocurrency can also be used to verify where trees were planted, their vital signs and their carbon offset — and that could make companies less likely to stretch the truth about their climate efforts.

When a company promises to plant thousands or millions of trees in their plan to fight climate change, how do you know if they really did?

Some companies do try to help the climate — and then they take credit. But companies can also pat themselves on the back a little too loudly for their environmental efforts, a practice known as "greenwashing."  

It turns out that blockchain, the technology that powers cryptocurrency and NFTs, might be the solution to holding companies to their climate promises.

Blockchain, if you’re unfamiliar, encrypts and distributes data over a peer-to-peer network, as opposed to a central server. Information lives everywhere at once.

Only a couple dozen major companies have adopted Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency that uses the blockchain to compute and verify transactions. But more than 800 groups are working to adopt blockchain into their workflows, a report by Blockdata says.

But how does it play a role in truth-telling and honest recordkeeping for massive climate projects?

Derrick Emsley has been planting trees for years. His startup, veritree, has a compelling use case for blockchain — centered around decentralized data and transparency. I caught up with Derrick to understand how a blockchain ecosystem can help restore a natural one.

Unbiased Reporting and Transparency

Adopting blockchain doesn’t mean simply minting tree NFTs on a chain. It’s about reporting data to stakeholders. Emsley's vision includes a rich sensory network that monitors trees and reports on environmental conditions. It’s like a news service but powered by electronic sensors instead of human reporters — covering data points like air temperature, soil moisture and nitrogen levels.

These reports would live on a digital public record of vital statistics for each tree. Records give stakeholders a way to monitor their reforestation projects, and could also be used to calculate stats like each tree’s net carbon offset.

Carbon offsets can reduce the ecological damage caused by greenhouse gases with a counterbalance that absorbs carbon. A mature tree can absorb 48 pounds of CO2 every year — about one ton of carbon over 40 years.

A blockchain-based forest could report its carbon capture figures on a digital public record, giving people a way to track a corporation’s environmental efforts. And since each tree has a record on the blockchain, and each record can be owned by someone, trees become tradable commodities — or nature-based NFTs.

(Portions of the interview have been lightly edited for length.)

Peter Hull: Why did you build veritree?

Derrick Emsley: When I was 15 years old and everyone was talking about climate change, I felt like the broader narrative was really disempowering and sort of guilt-driven. So for us, our thought was ‘how can we create some sort of solution?’ Not a silver bullet by any stretch, but actually play a role in solving it rather than what the broader narrative was, which was sort of finger pointing. And so my brother and I bought 640 acres of land and we planted 150,000 trees, and a number of companies came on board and said, “OK, we'll help you fund this project in the interest of the future carbon removal that will come off of that.” It led to us creating Tentree — it’s an outdoor lifestyle apparel business, we plant 10 trees for every product we sell. That business alone plants over 75 million trees and we’ll plant our 100 millionth tree this year.

But as that company scaled, we started to realize that we need better verification, we need better auditing, and transparency. And this was made even worse during COVID. Historically we were traveling to these sites every year or two to monitor the progress and we knew that there was on-the-ground communication that was happening, but we couldn't do that during COVID. So really for us, veritree was a solution to a problem we faced at Tentree: we're planting tens of millions of trees and we need to know that A, they're getting in the ground, B, we're not buying the same tree that 100 million other people are, and C, once it's in the ground, that it's done the right way and it actually survives. 

PH: Why build veritree with blockchain?

DE: For us, the blockchain side of things really focuses on a few key areas. One was taking this world of climate mitigation as well as tree planting that is very sort of centralized, lacking a lot of transparency, and broadening that and opening it up so that there's a bit more sort of alignment and transparency within the entire space. The second thing that becomes really interesting long-term is this opportunity for fungibility of products, because really when you think of carbon offsets, what makes it such a powerful vehicle to help us with climate mitigation is the ability for it to be considered effectively a commodity that can be traded, bought or sold — and blockchain allows you to almost create that fungibility with trees.

But really it's the foundational technology of blockchain that allows us to use our system to put all the important data, all the transparency that we need on-chain in a decentralized environment. A lot of tree-planting projects need to have broader transparency because they last 20 to 25 years, so decentralization is really important.

PH: How does veritree collaborate?

DE: We're working to build the operating system for the future of global reforestation. That means we need a way to take in this funnel of information, there are things like acoustic sensors, satellite imagery … We need to pull all that data together and manage it, verify it, audit it, and report on it.

So once a field update gets submitted to say “we planted 5,000 trees,” backing gets submitted into our system and we're able to audit it, verify it, and make sure that all the correct data has been collected. From there, those trees that are submitted can effectively tokenize. And starting with this field update, we're able to inform all future data collection on that project — everything from sustainability to satellite imagery, drone footage, anything to make sure that our project isn't just sticks getting in the ground, but has a long-term impact.

And we built our own output, which is a visualization where you can see the location, the map interface, you can see the estimated facts on carbon, and things like that. And you'll be able to see the continued data coming in from the field. But we can also work that visualization into other areas. We can work into different sorts of company ESG platform reporting and things like that.

A Way To Expose ‘Greenwashing’

I also talked with Richard Outhwaite, Sustainability Impact Manager at Vega, a plant-based nutrition company that’s restoring a mangrove forest in Madagascar. They’ve partnered with veritree to plant 500,000 trees in an area larger than Vega’s current land footprint. Richard makes a case for blockchain’s immutable transparency as a guarantee against “greenwashing.”

PH: Speaking for Vega, what was appealing about veritree’s platform?

Richard Outhwaite: When we set out our three overarching sustainability promises, we wanted to make sure that transparency and accountability were at the heart of all of them and that our consumers knew exactly what we were doing, where we were doing it, and we weren't being accused of greenwashing — which is where veritree's platform really, really came to the fore. 

For us to be able to deliver that accountability and transparency to our customers, veritree ticked that box. One, through blockchain technology, but also just through the entire platform, which provides us with a dashboard where we can look and see what's being planted where and how it's doing, all those kinds of things. So for us as a business, it gives us that peace of mind as well — that our money is going where we want, and you can see the fruit on those trees grow, literally.

PH: So sensors reporting on the blockchain can verify these projects are happening — what’s the significance?

RO: It's huge from a corporate standpoint. You know, you want to make your best efforts, but without something to back it up, there's always a risk that you can be called out and it can be difficult to validate what you've done. And even the most progressive companies know it's real, you need to be sure you can back up whatever you're doing. 

Our core customers, they are already in the plant-based space, maybe they're a little bit more informed about what's going on. It doesn't take much for them to notice, "Hey, these guys, they're not doing what they say they are,” and then you lose them and it's difficult to get their trust back.