Online platforms aid climate pledges drive

As China forges ahead with its climate targets, many local governments and companies have started exploring carbon ledgers as a way of encouraging voluntary emissions reduction.


Tourists camp at a wind farm in Shangyou county, Jiangxi province, on March 8. (ZHU HAIPENG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

April 14, 2023

BEIJING – Shen Xingdong, a student at Shanghai Normal University, likes to drink Coca-Cola. Instead of buying it, though, he has found a new way to get the beverage — by undertaking low-carbon activities.

Using a carbon ledger program called 88 Carbon Account, which was launched by the e-commerce giant Alibaba in August, the 22-year-old can win carbon credits to exchange for the drink by leading a greener lifestyle.

For example, if he rides the subway he can win 200 grams of carbon credits for every trip after uploading a photo to the program to prove that he has commuted via the green transportation method. A photo showing him turning off the lights when leaving a room nets 65.5 grams of credits.

Riding shared bikes, declining single-use cutlery when ordering takeout food from online platforms and reading e-books are among other low-carbon activities that can win him credits.

Shen can exchange 500 grams of credits for 12 cans of Coca-Cola. Other commodities available for exchange include toothpaste and USB cables.

No matter whether the ledger brings us material rewards or moral encouragement, as long as it can win us recognition, we are all willing to keep using it, and we will undertake low-carbon activities with a more positive attitude.

Shen Xingdong,Carbon ledger user

“I have twice exchanged credits for cola,” Shen said, “I am still making efforts to earn more credits — I don’t think any university student can resist Coca-Cola.”

Corporate encouragement

As China forges ahead with its climate targets of peaking carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and realizing carbon neutrality before 2060, many local governments and companies have started exploring carbon ledgers as a way of encouraging voluntary emissions reduction by members of the public.

Alibaba is just one of them. Called Tanpuhui, the e-commerce company’s mechanism, aims to mobilize the general public to adopt green, low-carbon lifestyles via incentives, which are obtained by gains the various Tanpuhui platforms receive from selling carbon credits.

Experts said that even though smokestack, or heavily polluting, industries are currently the government’s main priority in its endeavors to reduce carbon emissions, the Tanpuhui mechanism has huge potential, given that public consumption has been contributing to increasingly larger emissions in China.

However, while there have been successful examples showing that such a mechanism can result in a win-win for the public, companies and the government, Tanpuhui’s potential cannot be fully unleashed without a national methodology on how to calculate carbon reductions from different low-carbon activities, they added.

Tao Lan, general manager of Green Inclusive Co Ltd, a Tanpuhui solution provider in Beijing, said last year was an important one for the development of the Tanpuhui mechanism in China.

Documents from the State Council, China’s cabinet, and many ministries increasingly emphasized greener lifestyles and pledged to promote the mechanism, and at least 21 provincial-level governments included the mechanism in their local development plans last year, she said.

Shandong province, Shanghai and Tianjin municipalities, and Shenzhen, Guangdong province, have all unveiled action plans to promote Tanpuhui, Tao added.

All this indicates that the mechanism no longer has just social appeal and practices in certain cities, it has become a key part of national and regional environmental governance work and climate action, she said, adding that dozens of Tanpuhui programs were launched across the country last year.

Tao provided a raft of statistics from different institutions to demonstrate the “quite considerable” potential of Tanpuhui in helping reduce carbon emissions.

For example, a book on carbon neutrality published last year — with Ding Zhongli, a well-known academician from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, among the lead authors — pointed out that carbon emissions from personal consumption amounted to more than 3.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019, almost one-third of the country’s total emissions that year.

If one consumer refuses single-use cutlery when buying takeout food, it helps reduce carbon emissions by 47.5 grams, while every kilometer of commuting by bicycle rather than car means 250 grams of carbon emissions can be prevented, Tao said.

“These amounts of emissions reductions are small. They really pale in comparison with the country’s total emissions of multiple hundreds of million tons,” she added. “But China is a country with a huge population. Any consumption on the basis of a total population of 1.4 billion people will be massive.”


Rising consumption

With the acceleration of urbanization and continuous rises in living standards, China’s per capita energy consumption and carbon emissions will rise consistently, she said. She added that the Tanpuhui mechanism can help people calculate the emissions they have prevented and raise awareness of low-carbon development across all sectors of society.

That view was endorsed by Guo Jifu, head of the Beijing Transport Institution, a government body. In Beijing, for example, private cars now contribute half the carbon emissions from transportation, said Guo, who is also a member of the 14th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the top political advisory body.

He noted that carbon emissions by private cars and their proportion in total emissions from transportation are both expected to rise. “China’s urbanization still lags significantly behind developed countries. As more people move into cities, they will surely have higher demand for automobiles,” he said.

He added that in most Chinese cities, related demand will also rise as urban areas expand and people face longer commutes.

The promotion of new energy vehicles will undoubtedly play a role in helping to curb emissions from urban transportation, he said. Greater efforts should be made to optimize the layout of cities by building more convenient life cycles so residents can find all their daily necessities within a short distance of home.

The optimization of the urban transportation structure is also of great importance, he said. If people can take the subway instead of driving, it will result in greater emissions reduction. If bicycles become a lifestyle choice, the amount reduced will be even larger.

The development of information technology and the mobile internet have made the application of the Tanpuhui mechanism possible because low-carbon commuting can be recorded and people’s contributions to emissions reduction can be calculated, Guo said.

MaaS — aka “Mobility as a service”, a Tanpuhui program in the capital — has proved successful in encouraging residents to opt for greener methods of travel, he said.

The program was launched in 2019 by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport and Amap, an Alibaba-backed map service. According to Alibaba, 2.3 million people are currently using MaaS on the Amap platform. Last year, the green travel undertaken by those people helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 200,000 tons, equivalent to the emissions from 100,000 gas-powered cars in an average year, it said.

In 2021, 24,000 tons of carbon credits generated via MaaS were traded for 1.2 million yuan ($174,000) at the China Beijing Green Exchange. All the gains were returned to MaaS users via gifts. On MaaS platforms, users can exchange their credits for vouchers for hotels, tourist attractions and restaurants, as well as subway tickets. One ton of carbon credits will net a subway ticket with a value of 50 yuan.

Yan Luhui, CEO and founder of Carbonstop, a provider of carbon management software and consulting services in Beijing, has stressed the role of Tanpuhui in raising people’s awareness of low-carbon lifestyles, which is key for the country’s climate targets.

Industries with high emissions are definitely the priorities for carbon reduction after the announcement of the country’s climate targets, and businesses should be the major contributors, Yan said.

“But all enterprises are built on people; only when people have an established awareness of low-carbon lifestyles can we fundamentally implement the targets of peaking carbon dioxide emissions and achieving carbon neutrality,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to seeing the government and businesses join hands to promote the Tanpuhui mechanism.

He stressed the importance of government participation in establishing such platforms because that will underline their credibility.

The government should also work out a methodology that will enable a unified standard to be established to calculate carbon reductions via different low-carbon activities, he said.

Such a methodology would provide greater market recognition of carbon credits from Tanpuhui platforms, thus enhancing the willingness of smokestack companies to offset their emissions with such credits, he noted.

Those who run the platforms should strive to make their applications capable of recognizing more low-carbon activities to attract more users, he added.

Yan also expects to see mutual recognition of carbon credits generated on different Tanpuhui platforms so users will have more choices when exchanging them for products.

“This will further enhance people’s willingness to participate,” he said.

While a lot of work may still have to be done to improve the Tanpuhui mechanism, Shen, the student, has already found it interesting enough to become an individual carbon ledger user.

“We all want to be recognized when doing things,” he said. “No matter whether the ledger brings us material rewards or moral encouragement, as long as it can win us recognition, we are all willing to keep using it, and we will undertake low-carbon activities with a more positive attitude.”

Editor’s note: As protection of the planet’s flora, fauna and resources becomes increasingly important, China Daily is publishing a series of stories to illustrate the country’s commitment to safeguarding the natural world.

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