Crypto for good? Digital currencies hold potential to further financial inclusion
Corporate sustainability professionals who are skeptical about cryptocurrency have reason to be. Just last week, a massive sell-off triggered by the instability of algorithmic stablecoin TerraUSD (UST) erased more than a quarter of the value of the global cryptocurrency market, wiping out billions in savings for investors in major cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. Extreme volatility, coupled with more than 40 known hacks into crypto exchanges since 2012, make crypto too risky an asset class for all but those who can afford to lose whatever they invest.
But whether the crypto conversation compels or repels you, several recent advancements point to digital currencies’ long-term potential to do good for society even as near-term challenges remain troublesome.
Among crypto’s widely touted benefits are financial efficiency and inclusion — but drawbacks such as high volatility, lack of regulation and anonymity that can lead to potentially nefarious financing cause detractors to caution against it. They’re not wrong, but what some consider a flaw, others might call a feature.
Day traders who work pricing volatility to their advantage have seen outsized returns (along with spectacular losses). Users in general value decentralized finance, or DeFi, for its peer-to-peer nature, a key trait of the blockchain technology that underpins it. The appeal: Most cryptocurrencies have no central authority, payment processor or company owner that may use your data for their own gains. Such features have led at least 16 percent of U.S. adults to invest in, trade or otherwise use cryptocurrency, and according to the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of U.S. adults know "at least a little about cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or ether."
Regarding volatility, bitcoin's price, for example, depends on supply and demand, as with most commodities. Since it was introduced as an asset in 2009, speculation has played a critical role in bitcoin’s value. Historically, its volatility has been more than six times higher than that of gold or fiat currencies — and the price continues to fluctuate with the opinions of media outlets, industry moguls and influencers. But recent evidence shows that volatility is likely to subside with global adoption and support of institutional investors. (As this article shows, 52 percent of financial institutions already own cryptocurrencies, with 71 percent of the rest expecting to buy digital assets soon.)Valid reasons exist for world leaders and investors to be bullish on crypto, but what does that have to do with sustainability professionals?
In the context of crypto for social good, digital currencies could increase access to finance for the unbanked and those living under corrupt regimes. The World Economic Forum argues, "not enough of us are rolling up our sleeves and getting involved with building this new global and inclusive open financial system, even though it was born over a decade ago."
Yet, there is resistance toward cryptocurrencies, not only for their risky nature for investors but also due to serious environmental sustainability concerns. Indeed, bitcoin mining consumes more energy than some countries. However, most innovations in human history have seen a corresponding jump in energy consumption. From reduction of mortality rates to advancements in science, technology and education — all have come at the cost of increasing energy consumption. Proponents also argue that energy consumption of bitcoin pales in comparison to that of global monetary systems, and that the conversation should focus on generation with renewable energy. (This topic warrants its own article, such as these here and here.)
Balancing social benefits with environmental concerns may become easier with a new campaign urging the bitcoin blockchain to switch from a "proof-of-work" model to a "proof-of-stake" model, in which a change in code can cut bitcoin energy consumption by 99 percent. Proof of stake is already well underway for the second most popular cryptocurrency, ethereum.
Beyond a greener way to mine crypto are greener applications for it. Cryptocurrency may hold the potential to create the world’s first authentic global carbon marketplace, as Jim Gold reports in GreenBiz. Such prospects mean the jury is still out on whether the environment and society will be worse off for crypto or better for it.
Why Web3 optimists see the glass as half full
Bitcoin’s development preceded the financial crisis of 2008. But the Great Recession fueled a desire for greater autonomy from what many saw as a corrupt banking system — and crypto emerged as a solution. Meanwhile, innovation in the finance system was long overdue, and driving it has given developers a promising new outlet for their skills. Web3 is the result, and this rapidly developing technology could bring with it benefits of ownership, privacy, security, opportunity and collaboration, as artificial intelligence expert Lasse Rouhiainen summarized it.
Others take a more measured approach to Web3. Circle Internet Financial’s Jeremy Allaire, co-founder of the payments and financial infrastructure company behind USD Coin, a "stablecoin" backed by a reserve asset, recently pointed out how Russia’s attack on Ukraine highlights the paradox of cryptocurrencies for both participants and regulators.
On the positive side, the internet is being used for crowdfunding for Ukraine with great success. "People are celebrating that," Allaire said during an interview with Bloomberg News in New York. "But it also allows people to evade things. The open internet is a double-edged sword, and that’s the case with crypto."
Siding with the optimists is Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation Alex Bornyakov. In a March 24 Bankless podcast, Bornyakov shared how Ukraine’s morale has been buoyed by donations of more than $62 million in cryptocurrency into its crypto fund. The instant global transfer properties of cryptocurrency were invaluable in the first days of war, when the financial system was overwhelmed. Compared to the time lag in transferring fiat currencies, crypto can come within five minutes of proof of transaction.
The funds, most of which came from individual donors, have translated into hundreds of thousands of food rations and medical supplies, and thousands of helmets and bullet-proof vests — the purchase of which was not bound to traditional requirements of humanitarian aid.
"If we supply those goods, some of them can save people’s lives," Bornyahkov said during the podcast. "Of course it’s unprecedented, and in a peaceful time no one would allow this, but we were in a desperate position… and this pushed us to any means to help protect ourselves."
Recounting his country’s journey toward digital currency adoption, Bornyakov said: "Most of the government was pretty much skeptical about crypto. You have no idea how much effort it cost to convince people to make them believe that it’s going to turn into something bigger."
Digital transformation champions all over the world are bumping up against the same barriers, but in Ukraine, crypto’s war-time relevance has revealed its capacity to create tangible impact — and crypto-friendly regulation has followed. It’s a hopeful example of how the cooperation of government and private institutions can lead to social innovation.
From countries to companies and consumers
Valid reasons exist for world leaders and investors to be bullish on crypto, but what does that have to do with sustainability professionals?
I began writing this essay at a conference hosted by FIS (which manages over half of the world’s wealth on its systems) where more than 3,000 financial professionals convened to learn about advancements in fintech. To prepare for my panel about the media’s coverage of cryptocurrency, I visited FIS’s Solutions Expo, where I talked to several members of the company’s product innovation team.
"As the company that banks, merchants and capital market firms turn to help them innovate, disrupt and advance, we are making more and more strategic investments in crypto and digital currencies," said Zhiyi You, innovation lead for crypto product strategy at FIS.Crypto has already proved to have more staying power than a fad fueled by investors and traders.
FIS’s payments solutions business Worldpay recently announced that it will be the first global merchant acquirer to offer businesses the ability to receive settlement directly in USD Coin (USDC). Where bitcoin is the master of the cryptocurrency market and exchanges use it as a major source of trading, USDC, a stablecoin, is backed up to assets that hold its value as constant (some more than others). Closer to fiat currency, the stablecoin finds application in many real-time businesses.
Ubiquitous access to digital currencies, especially those backed by fiat reserves, as a form of payment will go a long way toward adoption, and its philanthropic potential is only beginning to be tapped.
According to Fidelity Charitable, the popularity of digital currencies is on the rise with millennials, who happen to be more inclined toward charitable giving. Nearly nine in 10 millennials say charitable giving is an important part of their lives, compared to 74 percent of the total population. Since three-quarters of millennials consider themselves philanthropists, compared to only 45 percent of the total population, their interest in digital currency, combined with their charitable values, could deliver a significant influx in digital asset donations into the nonprofit sector. If nothing else, sustainability professionals should understand that the decentralized ethos of Web3 mirrors a trend toward sharing power in philanthropy, particularly relevant for the social impact side of the equation.
Crypto has already proved to have more staying power than a fad fueled by investors and traders. The prospect of increasing demand from a critical mass of global consumers practically guarantees eventual regulation to make it safer for everyone. Present volatility excepted, it’s possible that crypto could be here for good — and sustainability professionals who stay in the know can, and should, help champion environmental protection as it evolves.