Tackling climate change with blockchain

In this Q&A smart-mobility expert Mat Yarger, IOTA Foundation, explains how environmental organizations tackle climate change with data and how you can be confident it is accurate and traceable.

By Nicole Reineke, distinguished engineer, Dell Technologies

Every day, distressing headlines about how climate change is impacting our planet dominate newsfeeds. But these snapshots don’t tell the whole story. There is a larger picture, and in many cases, it’s one of hope—and action.

Innovative individuals and companies across the globe are working together to ensure that the future of our planet is bright. One of these organizations, the IOTA Foundation, is developing open-source infrastructure that will address climate change on a global scale.

In 2013, the organization’s founders built the first “proof of stake” blockchain, Nxt (although the founders were involved with Bitcoin and Ethereum as early as 2011). They designed the “IOTA protocol,” an implementation of a distributed ledger that can be used to track data or in conjunction with a token to track value. The protocol allows for much more granular analysis across thousands of data points—and use cases range from creating more transparent supply chains to more accurately measuring the environmental impact of energy facilities. Today, IOTA partners with companies across a wide spectrum of industries—including Dell Technologies—as well as local governments.

To better understand IOTA and its ongoing initiatives, I sat down with Mat Yarger, the organization’s head of smart mobility.

How do you work with the concept of “data trustworthiness” in your day-to-day at the IOTA Foundation?

Trust in data really revolves around what’s happening to people’s data—who’s interacting with it, when they’re interacting with it, and what they’re changing—and how that’s communicated to the user. There’s a level of granularity that’s necessary. With traditional technology systems, that level of transparency was difficult. But with the IOTA protocol, there’s an opportunity for much more specific data tracking. You can do 1,000 different data transactions to have a high level of granularity, and therefore a high level of confidence.

In my role, I focus on the mobility vertical to showcase how IOTA protocol implementations can work. We’ve got partnerships with a number of tier-one part suppliers: Jaguar, Land Rover and others. We’ve been very active in developing open standards around data confidence for connected vehicles, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, as well as standards in the energy space.

What role does partnership play in making “blockchain for good” a reality?

We’ve got partnerships all over the world. We’ve worked with a number of European Commission grants, and we’re very active in Africa on the supply chain side of things.

In Canada, we have an amazing partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and ClimateCHECK. We’re integrating very granular protocol capabilities into energy production facilities—for example, landfill gas sites and biodigester facilities.

The work that we’re doing with Dell’s Data Confidence Fabric is part of this partnership. We’ve been exploring a key transition, where the cloud is coming out to the edge—”the edge” being what we as users interact with, whether it’s our phones or the networks they connect to. Data transparency is particularly critical here. There are so many different points that are interconnected, whether it’s a vehicle connecting to telco infrastructure or to the cloud.

You’re not going to have one major company that owns the entire edge or these solutions. That has to happen in a collaborative space. If one organization is trying to own it, then it really limits the ability for these solutions and ecosystems to grow.

What are some of the other challenges with implementing these types of solutions?

One of the reasons it’s so important to architect blockchain in a thoughtful way from the ground up is scalability. If you can’t support 8 billion people or 800 billion devices, then your scalability is not high enough. That’s a primary focus for us.

Secondly, right now, there’s not a big enough workforce that can actually verify what’s happening to incentivize carbon exchanges and carbon credit processes. So we’re seeing a lot of greenwashing in this space. Our efforts are essentially a way to see what’s happening all the way up the stack, from the very beginning, to help combat that.

Can you elaborate on what “greenwashing” entails?

A lot of companies misreport the emissions that they’re reducing or the impact that they’re making. We’ve seen it in energy production facilities, where they’ll say, “Oh, we’ve reduced our emissions output by this much.” But once you can actually go through and audit that process, you figure out those numbers are about 50% off. This happens pretty commonly in the industry, and it’s been a hard problem to address. But by having a high level of data transparency, you can start to have a compliance-as-a-service mechanism to ensure that what’s being reported is actually factual.

The headlines around climate change and its impacts can be pretty scary. Are you hopeful for the future?

I do have hope. You can’t fix what you don’t understand, and I think that is really the critical underlying theme here. Where data becomes measurable and understandable, it becomes actionable. The thing that I get the most excited about with IOTA is that the transparency and insights it enables are really a key direction. It gives us something concrete to actually help solve these huge problems.