Ant Forest: from virtual trees to real forests
The virtual tree planted by a user of Apliay in his/her “Ant Forest” account. [Photo: courtesy of Ant Financial Services Group]
China is making concrete and innovative efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and build what officials call a “beautiful China.”
The latest innovative measure comes from a mobile internet financial service company, the Hangzhou-based Ant Financial Services Group.
In August last year, the company launched a scheme called “Ant Forest” on Alipay, which is one of the country’s most popular online payment platforms.
Combining the internet, finance and a low-carbon lifestyle, the scheme aims to turn virtual trees that users grow on the platform to real ones, thus contributing to tree-planting and environmental protection moves.
But how does the scheme actually work? And what effects has it had?
Ant Financial and the SEE have been providing subsidies for people in Alxa to plant saxaul trees in the desert. [Photo: courtesy of Ant Financial Services Group]
In the “Ant Forest” scheme, any activities on the Alipay platform by users that are considered low-carbon are counted and converted into virtual “green energy.”
The activities include walking instead of driving, paying for utilities and buying tickets online, taking public transport and so on.
The so-called virtual “green energy” generated by such activities will be used to grow a virtual tree in the user’s “Ant Forest” account.
When enough “energy” has been earned to grow the virtual tree, it’s converted into a real tree, planted in the desert by people supported by Ant Financial and its partners.
Bai Xue, Senior Researcher with Ant Financial, says the scheme is very popular with online users.
“Via Ant Forest, we encourage users to stick to a low-carbon lifestyle, such as paying utility bills online and driving less. Currently, 230 million people are planting virtual trees on their mobile phones.
“Technology, which can be used to mobilize the public, makes public welfare activities easier. If everyone is involved, we can easily popularize a low-carbon lifestyle.”
So far, 230 million users of Alipay have activated “Ant Forest” accounts, according to the company.
About 65 percent of users who have the accounts are people under 28 years of age.
But how is it possible to turn the virtual trees into real ones?
The Ant Financial company has been in cooperation with environmental NGOs, such as the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology or SEE and the China Green Foundation.
Under the “Ant Forest” scheme, the financial company and the SEE have been providing subsidies for local herdsmen and farmers in Alxa to plant saxaul trees in the desert while also offering technical support.
Alxa, or Alashan in Chinese, is a region in the western part of China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
Nie Yusheng, a 52-year-old former herdsman in the Alxa desert, is one local beneficiary to receive subsidies for planting saxaul trees.
Now working as a ranger under the “Ant Forest” scheme, Nie says the project is helping to improve the local environment while providing jobs for the local people.
Known as a desert guardian, a fully grown saxual tree can hold together a 10-square-meter patch of sandy land, according to environmentalists.
Figures show that more than a million such trees have been planted to limit sand erosion in deserts in the Alxa region under the project.
Bai Xue, Senior Researcher with Ant Financial, says it’s their aim to involve everyone in the project.
“We believe everyone wants to protect the environment. We make their wishes come true with modern technology. We’ll use technology to do more.”
The environmental scheme has indeed inspired a more healthy and low-carbon lifestyle among many of the online mobile payment users.
“I used to weigh 140 kilograms. Because I’ve been walking every day, I now weigh 100 kilograms. I’ve planted four trees with all the energy I gathered in my online Ant Forest account. When I was about to give up, the idea of planting a tree propelled me.”
“A sapling is small. It only grows a little in a year. I think everyone should be involved in public interest activities. No one alone can do much.”
Ant Financial has been working with the United Nations Environment Program to promote green digital finance around the world. [Photo: courtesy of Ant Financial Services Group]
The Ant Financial company has also been expanding its reach on the world stage with its concept of “green” finance.
In January this year, the Chinese company and the United Nations Environment Program formed the Green Digital Finance Alliance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
It is the world’s first green digital finance alliance according to Ant Financial.
The company has said it will explore the possibility of rolling out the carbon account modeling on the “Ant Forest” scheme around the world.
Within China, Ant Financial says the scheme has so far planted 10.25 million trees. That equates to a 1.22 million-ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
Overall, thanks to continuous and intensive tree-planting efforts, China saw its forest coverage expand by 30 million hectares during the 12th Five-Year Plan period between 2011 and 2015.
Agricultural and forestry officials have vowed to promote tree-planting and improve the quality of the forests in the five years from 2016.
The country is predicted to increase its forest coverage to 23 percent of its total land mass within three years, according to a UN report.