Ant Financial, China’s most valuable fintech company, allows users to help plant a forest via smartphone. Dr Lu Jianzhong and Isobel Brown report
There are an estimated 26,000 trees in New York’s Central Park. Ant Financial, an affiliate company of Alibaba Group that’s been valued at $60 billion, helps plant roughly 10,000 more trees than that every day, on average, in a desert in Inner Mongolia. Or, more accurately, 220 million of its users do, through the company’s “Ant Forest” initiative.
Through Ant Financial’s mobile and online payment platform, Alipay—China’s equivalent to Apple Pay or PayPal—users can join “Ant Forest.” Once signed up, they accumulate “green energy” through their Alipay accounts by recording activities that have reduced their carbon footprint, like taking public transport, paying utility bills or booking tickets online.
When their accumulated green energy reaches a certain level, it can be converted into a virtual tree. Then, in collaboration with the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) Foundation, Ant Financial converts these virtual trees into real ones, planting a saxaul tree in the Alashan Desert in Inner Mongolia. Saxauls are native to middle and central Asia, can withstand long periods of drought and, in desert conditions, tend to be relatively small, not much larger than a shrub.
The Ant Forest app launched in late August 2016. By April 2017, Ant Forest had 220 million users—roughly 3 percent of the world’s population—and had planted almost 8.5 million trees. According to estimates, these efforts are collectively reducing carbon emission levels by more than 2,500 tons of CO2 per day.