Updated: Feb 19, 2020
On 12 Feb 2019, NASA posted an article named "Human activity in China and India dominates the greening of Earth". According to NASA, Over the last two decades, the Earth has seen an increase in foliage around the planet, measured by average leaf area per year, based on plants and trees. Data from NASA satellites shows that China and India are leading way on increasing the greening of land. The effect stems mainly from ambitious tree planting programs in China and intensive agriculture in both countries.
Credits: NASA Earth Observatory
One of the fast-growing tree planting programs mentioned above is Ant forest, a mini-app launched by Ant Financial service group, owned by Alibaba group. In Sep 2019, Ant Forest received UN Champions of the Earth Award  awarded by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) for tree-planting initiative . Ant Forest has motivated half a billion people to protect the environment by turning their green deeds into an afforestation campaign, the award stated.
Ant forest's ambitious slogan: Let 5% of global population to grow trees on their phone.
And they have already succeeded!
What is this magical Ant forest?
Ant forest is a mini app launched by Ant Financial service group in August 2016, by creating a carbon account for individual users to promote greener lifestyles and reduce carbon emissions in their daily life.
The users can grow virtual trees in the game like application and eventually leads to real trees being planted in China.
The application tracks the user's carbon emission through various activities such as walking, cycling, taking public transportation, doing errands online, and etc. Each activity will create “green energy”, e.g. 80g by taking bus, 5g by paying via Alipay. Users can then grow a virtual tree by watering them daily while earning “green energy”. Once the tree is grown, partners of Alipay, such as non-governmental charity organizations, public benefit funds, will "purchase" the virtual trees and plant real trees in the driest areas in China. Users can not only view images of their trees in real time via satellite but also receive a certificate from Alipay.
Ant forest collaborates with Beijing environment exchange (CBEEX) to build the algorithm behind the “green energy” system, for example, if you shop offline and choose Alipay to pay for the product, considering you prevent from printing the paper receipt, you can earn 5g in green energy.
However, the algorithm isn't perfect, take the rapidly booming food delivery industry as an example. Alibaba's affiliate food delivery company HEMA claimed that it could reduce 1.28 million plastic bags in 2019 and the corresponding "green energy" created could plant around 15,000 trees. Based on the Ant forest algorithm, if you order food and do not request single use cutlery, you can earn "green energies". But relatively speaking, this activity is clearly less environmentally friendly compared to eating out at a restaurant or making food at home. Since the food is usually delivered by scooters in China, the carbon emitted via delivery might not offset the equivalent carbon emission needed to the produce cutlery. We understand Ant Financial won’t give users negative energy to restrict food ordering deals but the math doesn't seem to add up after all.
Nevertheless, perhaps this is the first step in bringing the public's attention to build awareness on the importance of protecting the environment. Xu Di, general manager of the Ant Forest initiative, said:
"Efforts to go green should not be limited to responses to appeals from the UN or governments and scientists, but rather something that engages everyone in a bottom-up approach.
Another Ant financial group's belief is not to limit people to purchase less, but use technology to reduce carbon emission. According to Alibaba, Logistics arm Cainiao Network’s smart-packaging technologies, designed to reduce wasted materials due to over-packing, have helped improve packaging efficiency for more than 500 million parcels. Cai niao has set up 5,000 recycling stations for unwanted shipping boxes at its delivery warehouses in 200 Chinese cities as well. Per Tmall, a B2C platform of Alibaba, the online shop L’Oreal had used environmentally friendly packaging to deliver over 2 million parcels from its Tmall flagship stores by the end of 2018, as part of a commitment made last June. About 40 brands from various industries have opted into the same green packaging solution, including Pandora, Innisfree, Casio and Durex. Tmall Supermarket reduced 100 million cardboard boxes by reusing old boxes and rejecting repackaging when the original boxes meet standards.
Why did Ant financial group launch Ant forest?
The smart Ant financial group definitely sees the business potential behind greening the environment. If you want to earn more "green energies", you basically have to use Alipay to make all your purchases, including utility bills, renting a bicycle, etc. Not to mention, it's a competitive feature against rival company Wechat pay.
If you want to speed up gathering green energy by not spending a penny, you might have to grant Alipay GPS access to track your steps. The value behind collecting personal data is extremely valuable, but not everyone is willing to give up their data.
The other ambition that Ant forest has is to create personal carbon account to encourage more low carbon activities as the first step. Secondly, users will receive a certificate of planting a real tree in China which would eventually linked to its Sesame credit system. It's worthy to mention that sesame credit system is one of the contributors to China's social credit system for individuals which we will cover in a separate article. Lastly, in the longer run, Ant forest has an ambition to achieve carbon trade and investment.
How fast did Ant forest grow?
Ant forest was launched by Alipay in August 2016, where you can grow a virtual tree and eventually plant a real tree in China. On 22nd April 2019, Ant forest announced that the users have reached 5 hundred million people and planted 100 million real trees in some of the driest areas in China, including in arid regions in Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Qinghai and Shanxi. On 27th August, 2019, 3rd anniversary of Ant forest, according to their statistics, the 0.5 billion users have saved 7.9 million tonnes CO2 emissions in total and grow 122 million real trees in China, the surface is equal to 1.5 Singapore. On 19th of Sep 2019, Ant forest has won Champion of the Earth 2019, awarded by UNEP.
sourced online, created by China ESG
Why is Ant forest so popular in China?
The air pollution issue has been worrying Chinese people for many years. As one of the key motivations, the Ant forest came right in time to allow Chinese people to contribute. Secondly, the application is basically game alike. Once you get started, you get sucked in.
You have to login on a daily basis as the green energy you earned will only show up on the second day after your activity is completed and you need harvest the "green energy" manually to appear on your carbon account. Interestingly, your friends on Alipay could steal your energy or help you to harvest if you don't actively monitor your ant forest. It sounds very simple but soon you will find yourself obsessed with it by checking out your green energy every couple hours.
You can grow a tree on your own or grow a tree with a group of people together, such as family tree or friendship tree. Once you plant a real tree, you will get a certificate from Ant forest proving that you have contributed to the environment. It's not uncommon that people are showing off their certificate on social media. But don't think you will ever leave the game by only achieving planting one tree. Think about the gaming feature, you can grow trees of different species, by unlocking each type of trees, it's just like pushing through to the next level of game and it brings you great satisfactions.
You start with 5g green energy, you might eventually end up with a real forest!