To save the ocean, Web3 needs more scientists

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Linwood Pendleton, Executive Director, Ocean Knowledge Action Network International Project Office, Annie Brett, Assistant Professor of Law, University of Florida

  • Web3 tools, such as NFTs and DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), are being created to support ocean conservation and science.
  • These innovations could enable new ways of funding and monitoring ocean conservation that avoid the mistakes of the past, but only if they are grounded in science.
  • More ocean scientists and researchers need to engage with Web3 projects to build a framework for considering evidence and assessing impact.

The world of web3, from non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to decentralized finance and a whole variety of blockchain-related activities, is expanding from mainstream finance into other sectors. Farmers can securely share data with each other via blockchain. Decentralized autonomous organizations or DAOs, such as KlimaDAO and Toucan have created cryptocurrencies backed not by dollars or euros but by climate assets. Projects like The Regen Network seek out and support activities with biodiversity and ecological co-benefits.

Now, Web3 tools are being deployed specifically to raise money for ocean conservation, create holistic conservation impact and even to fund ocean science. NFTs have been proposed as means of incentivizing ocean conservation impact. At least 9 new initiatives propose to use NFTs to spur ocean conservation or to convert conservation action into tokens that can be bought and sold as cryptocurrencies.

These new Web3 forays into climate, conservation and science are not without controversy or even failure. Climate-oriented Web3 initiatives have been accused of encouraging demand for poorly designed carbon offsets. WWF UK was forced to quickly withdraw its offering of fundraising NFTs owing to the backlash against associated carbon emissions.

Whether or not new Web3 efforts to fund conservation impact will achieve positive outcomes for the ocean and those who depend on it rests largely on whether scientists and researchers play a role in how these Web3 initiatives are developed, applied and governed – especially by providing critical analysis. So far, little attention has been given to the scholarly review of what these conservation-oriented Web3 initiatives seek to achieve. Do these newer, faster means of channelling money from rich nations to poor lead to new forms of conservation and scientific colonialism? Can impact really be delivered and verified autonomously? What happens if new Web3 markets create demand for some aspects of ecosystem health at the expense of others or the people who depend on ecosystems? How does the carbon footprint of these new Web3 conservation efforts compare with business-as-usual approaches?

Independent scholarship is needed to ensure that claims made by new Web3 conservation start-ups and NFT sellers are real, that they can deliver what is promised and that the possibility of unintended consequences has been well considered and mitigated.

Unfortunately, scientists and researchers are only sparsely represented in the Web3 space. Many ocean conservation applications of Web3 are moving forward based on a notable paucity of sound science and use just a handful of peer-reviewed papers on natural asset values that are incomplete (in terms of assessing the full suite of services and disservices in an ecosystem). This is not to say these approaches are wrong, just that there is a need for considerably more research and evidence before new, global markets are created.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without a healthy ocean – but it’s more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

We are in the early days of ocean conservation-oriented Web3 endeavours and scientists and researchers need to engage in Web3 in order to have their voices heard before these Web3 conservation and science projects come to define conservation finance for the next decades. We recommend that:

1. Scientists take a more active role as advisors to and critics of Web3 conservation initiatives.

2. While some scholars focus on the social, economic and technical aspects of Web3, more research is needed on the actual application of Web3 to conservation and ecosystem management;

3. University professors design curricula to prepare students to be critical thinkers in regards to the application of Web3 and digital technologies to conservation, science development and more.

At Moonjelly Academy, we have created a new not-for-profit to stimulate open scholarly debate about critical issues emerging in Web3 for ocean conservation. We invite scientists and scholars to join our work. There is a narrow window of opportunity for the science and research communities to engage in the conversations happening right now that are shaping this digital, but very real, world.

Recent years have brought to light the extent of the systemic failures in conservation and the science that supports it – the traditional funding models that actively stifle innovation, the parachute science that widens resource and knowledge inequities and the colonialism that has plagued traditional conservation. To ensure that Web3 does not repeat these past mistakes, scientists and researchers need to learn about Web3, engage in Web3 communities and begin to study and analyse the new world of Web3, especially as it now applies to ocean conservation.

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