The decision by many nations and cities to push for carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier will bring opportunities to realign financial institutions to a new economic paradigm.
We are more reliant on the ocean than ever before, we’re realizing that it’s vast but not limitless, and there is a full schedule of international conferences and negotiations in 2020 that have the potential to reshape our relationship with the ocean.
— Robert Blasiak, Our Future on Earth
This past week I sent my latest manuscript to the publisher and shifted my attention toward an upcoming trip to Belize, where I will teach a permaculture course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm and then continue the design process for our Cool Lab prototype biorefinery and microenterprise hub.
In December, when I was in Madrid for the UN climate conference, I was struck by how much attention has been going into the so-called Blue Economy, variously called Blue Finance, Blue Bonds, Blue Charter, Blue Revolution, Blue Carbon, etc. I had seen this transforming the RDRCC (Regenerative Design to Reverse Climate Change) initiative begun by the Commonwealth a few years ago. That made sense since the Commonwealth was 53 countries bound together by their coastlines. But in just a couple of years, somehow the concept has gone viral. Now big Blue is all the rage.
The Stockholm Resilience Centre has made more sense of it with two recent reports, The Blue Acceleration in January and Our Future on Earth in February. Scanning some of the headlines the authors gathered in an appendix to the January report, you get a better feel for what is happening:
“Diamond mining companies setting sights on the sea as land dries up in Africa.” — The Telegraph (2016)
“Marine algae could help feed the world.” — World Economic Forum (2017)
“Humanity’s health may rely on what sits on the Arctic seabed.” — BBC (2016)
“Could seawater solve the freshwater crisis?” — National Geographic (2011)
“The future of tourism is a $20 million hotel that takes guests 30 feet underwater.” — Business Insider (2015)
As The Blue Acceleration authors explain,
[E]xpectations for the ocean as an engine of human development are increasing. Claiming marine resources and space is not new to humanity, but the extent, intensity, and diversity of today’s aspirations are unprecedented.
The problem I posed in my new book is, who speaks for the whales?
We have so overfished the “stocks” of all the principal food fish that today we are starting to gather and convert krill from Arctic waters into “superfood” supplements and fish sticks. We are feeding those to farmed fish (now equal to wild catch globally) or to our pets. The problem is, krill are near the bottom of the marine food pyramid. They are primary producers, converting sunlight and surface minerals into food for everything else, up to and including blue whales. The enormous die-off of 100 million cod and many other fisheries that happened when marine heatwaves parched krill in recent years is an indication of what can go wrong when you cut this vital food supply. The marine heatwave now active in the Southern Ocean around Australia may be as devastating to ocean biodiversity as the summer bushfires have been on land.
And yet, the pressure to exploit the “resource” is building much faster than our ability to understand its impact.
For most of the months I was writing, I was leaning heavily on the usually advertised solutions involving marine protected areas, better regulations, voluntary environmental stewardship, and so forth. Towards the end of my time with the project I became increasingly disenchanted with these strategies, which hadn’t been working before, so why should we put confidence in them now?
Instead, I turned to something I had been studying from the world of negative emissions technologies in the context of my Belize Cool Lab and biochar. That something was cryptocurrency.
In July 2015, the UN Research Institute for Social Development published a working paper called “Re-imagining Money to Broaden the Future of Development Finance: What Kenyan Community Currencies Reveal is Possible for Financing Development. “The paper focused on the case of Bangla-Pesa, an alternative currency used in poor urban areas in Kenya, and showed how currency innovation can work for poor people. In 2015 crypto was relatively new — BitCoin was trading at $300 (today it is $9600, down from a 2017 peak of nearly $20,000)— but in broad strokes, the “Re-imagining Money” paper had it right. Crypto is not tulip mania in digital form or a new flavor-of-the-week for gold bugs. It could be about integrating neglected externalities in neoclassical economics so that currencies aid social and ecological goals rather than take away from them, or simply ignore them. The authors wrote:
“It is in the context of historical and evolving confusion that we offer the Value- Sequence Typology of money, which is at present purely descriptive. However, we believe that in time, as the field of currency innovation expands dramatically, it could be used to predict the longer-term sustainability of currency valuations, due to analysis of whether the issuers, regulators, and users of currencies are clear about the relationship of a type of money to actual value. It may help reveal fundamental fallacies in the design, understanding and regulation of currencies that could cause volatility. In addition, it may also be able to predict the societal impact of currencies, with well-governed credit monies and Acknowledgement Monies enabling more social progress than commodity monies.”
Since the digital age first reached central banks in the last quarter of the 20th century, paper and coin money have taken a back seat to electronically-stored and instantly transmitted strings of ones and zeros that make up the modern global economy. Each day quadrillions of dollars, euros, rubles, pesos, and yen are exchanged by keystroke. This revolution has now evolved into blockchains of digital ledgers that offer verifiability and chain-of-custody records, and one even more significant advantage. They offer the prospect that we may be able to de-externalize costs that harm society and the natural world.
When we cut down a tree to make paper or furniture, our ancient system of accounting counts that timber as an asset. As value is added through labor and technology, the wood appreciates and is assigned a higher value. We do not subtract from that value the work the tree had been doing that is now lost. We do not account for its role in moderating climate, freshening the air, or fostering biodiversity. But we could. The shift to distributed ledgers and the acceleration of computing power makes that kind of revaluation possible. It is already happening with experimental exchanges like Nori and Puro that calculate how carbon-sequestration value changes as a product or service is exchanged, ages, or recycles its components. Activity that benefits the climate conveys a higher value, while activity that reduces our security or damages the environment drops the value of the commodity.
The decision by many nations and cities to push for carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier will bring opportunities to realign financial institutions to this new economic paradigm, where social and environmental costs are no longer externalized but are reflected in the price of anything exchanged. There will be opportunities for new jobs and better living conditions as a result.
One example of this approach is how we are planning to capitalize our Cool Lab build-out with a vessel called Noah ReGen that first emerged from the discussions at the Commonwealth. A Bleen Bond is the contraction of Blue and Green bond, used for ocean impact investment. The principal goal of the investment is ocean ecosystem regeneration. As most of the marine litter and pollution originates from the land, Noah ReGen is planning to issue Bleen Bonds to fund the cleanup and restoration of rivers, wetlands, and coastal lands. Bond funding can target sources of pollution, coastal erosion, microplastics, and acidification; can reverse coral and biodiversity losses; can then provide returns to investors from carbon credits for coastal mangroves, real estate, and biorefineries. The bonds will offer to bondholders:
- Income security of 30-year bonds
- 5% APR revenues: 4% in dollars; 1% in Blue Coins
- Expected appreciation of bond value @ 7% APR based upon carbon exchange trading.
The Blue Coins appreciate or depreciate based upon continuing audits of their carbon sequestration, social goals, or regeneration of ecosystems. Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion pledge to tackle climate change could launch all this in a single stroke.
To avoid extinction requires us to de-externalize the true costs of things. Our exponentially accelerating computing power and these new distributed ledgers can now provide that opportunity.
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