ANT FOREST: Advancing environmental SDGs at rapid pace and massive scale

The Task Force’s just-released Framework Document (see related story) maps out the priorities that will focus our work for the next year—and the challenges each of those priorities presents. For our environmental-focused work one of the key challenges involves scale. The digitalization of finance opens up great potential for new models to catalyze uptake of clean energy alternatives, but most of the efforts currently underway remain experimental and small scale. One notable exception is Ant Forest, the celebrated tree-planting initiative by Ant Financial. In this issue of The Friday Reader, Task Force member Eric Jing, CEO of Ant Financial, shares his thoughts about what has made Ant Forest such a success.

Screen shot of the Ant Forest user interface; Ant Forest participants on site. Images courtesy of Ant Financial, used with permission.wp-image-5621 size-medium” src=”×300.jpg” alt=”” height=”300″ style=”caret-color: rgb(0, 0, 0); color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: -webkit-standard;”>ignright” width=”169

 Q. Ant Forest was launched less than three years ago (August 2016) and has already achieved massive scale. What are the current statistics?

A. At the end of 2018, about 400 million people, or about 5 percent of the world’s total population, had participated in Ant Forest. Collectively they’re responsible for planting more than 55.5 million trees in China and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 3 million tons.

Q. How did Ant Financial drive that much uptake that fast? How did you combine behavioral insights, incentives, messages, technology, and all the other necessary ingredients?

A. I would say that there are two main keys: Ant Forest makes something that is very meaningful, such as combating climate change, but traditionally difficult to being part of, easy and fun. Within the lifestyle super app that is Alipay, users have one location to tend to their daily activities (paying utilities, hailing a cab, ordering takeout, etc.) so we had a powerful opportunity to layer on a low-carbon lifestyle platform. Users don’t have to leave the app to “do green consciousness things” as if those things were somehow apart from everyday real life. We also deliberately designed Ant Forest to appeal to the user sensibility. It provides a fun and social way to interact with friends while doing good, and also encouraging carbon reduction activities such as walking, taking public transportation, reducing paper usage, and many other things. All these greener behaviors let the user build up virtual carbon credits, which aggregate into a virtual tree, which gets planted as a real tree. So there are 55.5 million real trees now that weren’t there before—but also remember all the greener behaviors on behalf of so many people that came first. Once people find that it’s easy and fun to lead a low carbon lifestyle, it stays, and they’re more likely to stick to it if there’s a tangible outcome, like with combatting desertification through reforestation.

Q. How does it work logistically? Ant is a financial services company, and 55.5 million trees is a lot of trees. How did you reorient your business operation to take on this massive task?

A. We are not doing this alone. We work with local environmental conservation NGOs such as the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) and the China Green Foundation. With our local implementing partners, we jointly plant trees and maintain forests in Alxa, Ordos and Bayannur in Inner Mongolia, and Wuwei in Gansu Province and other regions. Our partners, both domestically and internationally, are paramount to Ant Forest’s success.

Q. Do you have any impact data yet? 

A. Just a few weeks ago, in mid-February, extensive NASA satellite data revealed that the Earth is greening, with China and India jointly responsible for a third of the increase due to tree-planting and increase in agriculture. Ant Forest is not the whole story, of course. But we are honored to be part of a positive trend, and hope that trend accelerates.

Q. Which of Ant Forest’s success factors do you believe are unique to China, and which could be replicated elsewhere?

A. China is a uniquely big country, of course, in terms of both population and land mass. Probably Ant Financial’s market position and the trustful relationship we have with our user base gave us an advantage in being able to plant so many trees in such a short period of time. It’s also important not to take for granted the connectivity environment. We talked about this a lot during the Task Force’s meeting in Davos in January: the importance of “leave no one off-line” before you can commit to “leave no one behind.” But provided there is the necessary digital platform in place, and the machinery and infrastructure in place for the greening of desertified land, then absolutely, the Ant Forest model could be replicated. We are delighted to share Ant Financial’s experience about how the digitalization of finance can support environmental SDGs, and the concrete lessons learned to make that happen.