By Anders Lorenzen
One of the world’s fastest-growing tech companies, China’s Alibaba Group, is using technology to launch an ambitious tree-planting scheme. The mechanism for doing so is through a virtual forest in which every virtual tree eventually will be transformed into a real one. Earlier in the year, Ant Financial, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group and the parent company of the lifestyle and payment platform Alipay, announced that over a 100 million trees were planted through an incentive on the Alipay platform.
In 2016, Alipay launched the virtual forest Ant Forest in which users are rewarded for making small, environmentally friendly decisions in their daily lives through “green energy” points which can be redeemed to plant trees in areas of the country in need of vegetation. The app has over 500 million users and features include leader boards to keep users engaged and the ability for friends to water trees, or “steal” energy from, each other. To make the initiative more transparent, the mini-program also allows users to view images of their trees in real-time via satellite.
Other businesses across the Alibaba Group’s ecosystem are also encouraging their users to participate in the Ant Forest initiative. When consumers do their grocery shopping at the new retail-driven supermarket Freshippo for example, they receive green energy points when they opt out of plastic bags. They can also earn points when they use Alibaba’s second-hand trading platform, Idle Fish, to recycle their old items, or buy movie tickets using the firm’s online movie-ticketing platform Taopiaopiao or using Dingtalk, a chat and collaboration app, to hold video conferences instead of commuting for in-person meetings.
Alipay and its partnering Chinese NGOs are planting their trees in China’s most arid areas, such as desert regions in Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Qinghai and Shanxi. So far, 100 million real trees, covering a total area of 933 square kilometres, have been planted, which equates to roughly the size of 130,000 football fields.
Eric Jing, chairman and CEO of Ant Financial, said “I am very proud of the popularity of Alipay Ant Forest, which embodies our belief that technology should be used for social good. We are grateful to our many users and partners who have helped plant 100 million trees and advance a shared vision of sustainable and inclusive development.”
The Beijing government has grand ambitions to build a Great Green Wall stretching 4,500 kilometres across China’s northern deserts to combat land degradation; the project will eventually cover 42% of China’s landmass with trees if it meets its targets by 2050.
In a NASA study published in February, researchers found that China and India accounted for one-third of the planet’s increased foliage in the past 20 years. The US space agency said China’s “outsized contribution to the global greening trend” was, in large part, thanks to its ambitious programs to conserve and expand forests. In the age of the loss of global tropical forests through deforestation and fires, environmentalists can take solace in the fact that in some parts of the world forest cover is actually increasing.