xi jinping WED 2017
Chinese President Xi Jinping at the World Economic Forum 2017 meeting. Delivering the opening address, Xi urged global leaders to stay in the Paris climate agreement, sparking speculation that China will lead the climate fight. Image:

Even amid the frenzy surrounding the inauguration of US president Donald Trump, the presence of a communist leader in one of the citadels of global capitalism was a noteworthy event.

The “Xi in Davos” story evolved quickly; from wry ruminations on the sheer novelty – and inherent irony – of it, leader-writers began to focus on his defence of globalisation and opined on a possible new era of Chinese economic leadership.

But a minority noticed another angle: the strong focus on environmental issues that underpinned the comments of many in the Chinese delegation.

The New York Times called it “unexpected”, while the Guardian speculated that China could “take ownership” of the “climate change fight”.

But among the English language heavyweights, only the Financial Times detailed just how much Beijing has already been doing to tackle environmental problems, and not one acknowledged that Beijing had, in fact, quietly taken ownership of this conversation several years before Xi came to Davos.

An unlikely disruption from an unlikely source

Two days after Xi’s high-profile speech, in a meeting room on the periphery of the Davos Congress Centre and away from the spotlighted leaders, another new China-based environmental initiative was quietly formalized.

The Green Digital Finance Alliance is the latest step in China’s sustainability journey, a unique experiment in financial technology geared towards environmental goals and the first global public-private partnership to be co-founded by a Chinese finance company.

Ant Financial is China’s equivalent of PayPal, a platform with around 450 million active users handling 58 per cent of payments in China’s burgeoning e-commerce industry.

In the run-up to the launch in Davos, Ant signed up some 72 million members into a new app that calculates a personalized measure of each member’s carbon footprint, and rewards them for improving that footprint through their online behavior.

The reward comes in the form of trees planted in Mongolia, and within three months of the app’s launch, the active members have obligated Ant to plant a million and a half trees.

For the alliance, the reward is not just about the trees but having access to unfiltered data from a vast user base and the ability to “nudge” those consumers’ understanding and behaviour towards more sustainable actions.

Quite how this one app might serve as a launch pad for a “green fintech” revolution in a…