Alipay Ant Forest: Using Digital Technologies to Scale up Climate Action | China

Summary

Alipay is one of the world’s most popular online payment and lifestyle platforms. Hailing from China, the platform serves over one billion users worldwide in partnership with its local e-wallet partners.

Alipay’s online and mobile payment platform is used by more than a billion people to pay for everything from groceries, to bike rentals, to wealth management products. In August 2016, the Chinese company turned the power of its digital technology to promote climate action. The Alipay Ant Forest project, launched on the company’s mobile app, rewards its users with “green energy points” each time they take a step to reduce their emissions, such as by biking to work, going paperless and buying sustainable products. These green energy points grow into a virtual tree on the user’s app, which Alipay matches by planting a real tree or protecting a conservation area, in partnership with local NGOs. 

Since its launch, Alipay Ant Forest has attracted over 500 million users, planted 100 million real trees in Northwest China covering a total area of 112,000 hectares, and protected a total area of 12,000 hectares of conservation land. Alipay Ant Forest has also helped create around 400,000 job opportunities and RMB 60 million (USD 8.4 million) in income by working with farmers to plant trees, develop organic agricultural products, and connect them with e-commerce platforms.

Alipay Ant Forest
Filipina Alipay user Joahnna shows off her Alipay Ant Forest virtual tree while her friend shows off his GCash virtual tree

Key Facts

  • The Alipay app is one of the world’s most used mobile applications — over a billion users.
  • Over 500 million people have joined the Alipay Ant Forest green initiative, planting over 100 million trees, which as of August 2019, now cover a total area of 112,000 hectares in Northwest China.
  • Alipay Ant Forest shows how technology can be applied to foster massive individual efforts to tackle climate change, which represents a meaningful step towards the Sustainable Development Goal 13 — “taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

The Problem

The world faces daunting environmental challenges. Increasing pressure on the environment is causing serious damage to ecosystems and threatening the lives of millions of people. Bottom-up approaches are needed to engage people directly in behavioral change and green financing, to complement the top-down climate action initiatives led by governments and non-state actors.

Alipay Ant Forest
Electronic Scarecrows in Alipay Ant Forest shoot photos every day and send them back

The Solution

Emerging digital technologies can provide a bottom-up approach to address climate change, by providing a measurable, tradable and allocable platform to shift people’s daily behavior towards a low-carbon lifestyle. At its core, Alipay Ant Forest encourages people to live a greener lifestyle by integrating a range of low-carbon activities into daily life—such as paying utility bills and purchasing tickets online via a mobile device and walking to work instead of driving.

These behaviors are recorded and converted into “virtual green energy” on the Alipay Ant Forest platform. Once a user’s virtual tree has fully grown, Alipay and its philanthropic NGO partners plant a real tree in Northwest China or commit to protect a particular conservation area.

Helping the Planet

Alipay Ant Forest has a double-counting carbon reduction effect—and is a key example of innovative environmental protection in the Internet era. Accumulating points to grow a virtual tree helps facilitate a low-carbon lifestyle, energy savings, and emission reductions. And, planting real trees can help prevent soil erosion and control desertification, while playing a key role in the fight against climate change.

In addition to planting trees, Alipay is exploring other innovative corporate social responsibility models. In September 2017, Alipay Ant Forest launched a land protection project, where users can “adopt” or virtually claim to protect five square meters of conservation land with the support of Alipay and local NGO partners.

Alipay Ant Forest
Alipay Ant Forest is saving degraded land in Tennger Desert, Gansu Province among other arid areas in China

Helping People

Alipay helps local farmers generate income from the green economy. The Alipay Ant Forest app has created around 400,000 job opportunities as of August 2019. Alipay hopes to increase farmers’ income not only by planting trees, but also by developing organic agricultural products and helping connect partners directly to Alibaba e-commerce platform.

Alipay Ant Forest
Farmers planting trees for Alipay Ant Forest

Spillover Effect

Ant Forest has exceeded Alipay’s expectations by attracting large numbers of users in a short period of time and eliciting significant behavioral change. Early results indicate a strong potential to use digital technology in collective efforts to safeguard the planet for ourselves and future generations.

The Alipay Ant Forest model could be extended to other regions to encourage more people to adopt low-carbon activities. In June 2019, the leading mobile wallet in the Philippines, GCash has introduced GCash Forest on its app. Inspired by Alipay Ant Forest, GCash Forest enables local users to contribute to reforestation and environmental preservation by adopting low carbon activities in their daily lives. Digital technology innovations, such as Alipay Ant Forest, as part of a wider digital eco-system, could be deployed in addressing many other environmental challenges, in collaboration with governments and other stakeholders.

The Alipay Ant Forest app offers a new way to mobilize people to engage in solving local and global problems. With the accelerating growth of mobile services used by young adults, who are typically most concerned by the impact of climate change, the potential to scale up the impacts of Alipay’s Ant Forest app is promising.

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