Carbon Fingerprints

Keren Weitzberg

You don’t often see biometrics on lists of ‘climate technologies’, but they are increasingly used to determine how people access resources, services and freedoms that are likely to become scarcer and more unequally distributed in the face of ecological, environmental and socioeconomic crises.

Biometric systems regulate the right to mobility, an ever more contested issue in the age of climate breakdown. The European Asylum Dactyloscopy Database (EURODAC) stores the fingerprints of migrants who enter Europe, often determining where they can make an asylum claim. The International Organisation for Migration funds the Migration Information and Data Analysis System (MIDAS), which captures fingerprints and facial images at border points across sixteen African countries. Systems like EURODAC and MIDAS facilitate deportation by helping European governments identify countries of origin and first asylum.

The White House has suggested that such programmes, including the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Biometric Identification Transnational Migration Alert Program (BITMAP), could be used as ‘early warning systems’ to address climate-related migration. BITMAP is deployed in places like the Darién Gap to keep track of US-bound migrants along one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes.

But biometrics are also a tool in the humanitarian, aid and development sectors. Since the turn of the century, there has been an explosion of interest in digital identity and biometric systems among organisations such as the World Bank, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme. Digital identity systems are often celebrated as a pathway to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, ‘legal identity for all’.

In India, a range of public and private services are now linked to Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identification programme. Launched in 2009, Aadhaar (Hindi for ‘foundation’) is a 12-digit identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India. Registration requires a facial photo, ten fingerprints and iris scans. Hundreds of millions rely on free or subsidised grain and fuel rations from the Indian government, which are frequently accessed through Aadhaar authentication.

Biometric technologies, seen as an efficient way to combat welfare fraud, are changing the face of aid delivery. Policymakers are seeking to move away from in-kind rations towards digital cash transfers. In Africa, biometrically administered cash transfers have become popular among a host of international donors and welfare providers. Almost half of South Africa’s population now receive cash grants from government social assistance programmes, often verified through fingerprint and voice scans. The Hunger Safety Net Programme transfers cash to a hundred thousand chronically poor and food-insecure households in the north of Kenya, who are at extreme risk, in large part because of climate change.

As supply chains become more expensive, digital cash transfers offer a cheap, efficient way of providing support to the world’s poorest populations. Where the state is ‘weak’, infrastructure is poor and many people lack legal documentation, so-called leapfrogging technologies – such as biometric sensors, smart cards, cell phones and mobile ATMs – are facilitating the distribution of money, even in places with poor roads, sparse internet access and few brick-and-mortar bank branches.

Digital cash transfers are not without their problems. Research from India suggests that people prefer in-kind rations. ‘Cash provides people with a choice,’ as Ugo Gentilini writes, ‘but it also transfers to them the risk of supply failures.’ Programmes like the HSNP can be seen as a form of ‘minimal biopolitics’, aimed at sustaining life at its most rudimentary level. And, as critics like the economist Reetika Khera note, biometric projects can exclude the poorest and most vulnerable.

At the same time, biometric forms of distribution, whether cash or in-kind, could have benefits in an era of climate breakdown. Many environmentalists are rejecting market solutions such as carbon taxes and carbon trading. They’re calling instead for carbon rationing, at a personal, national and international level. Air travel, for carriers and passengers, is an obvious target for a rationing system, but how would governments and watchdogs allocate energy output by utilities or consumption at the point of delivery? Or intervene in the production and consumption of non-synthetic meat and dairy? At this point, for advocates of rationing, dirigiste wartime models come into play. Stan Cox, a research fellow at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, suggests that we have ‘not seen the last of the national crises that make formal rationing necessary’.

Aadhaar and other biometric programmes offer one possible model – digital points-based systems are another – for how states might administer rationing systems. At the 2021 Identity Week conference in London, a former senior biometrics adviser for the Home Office raised the possibility of using biometrics for metering energy and other services to tackle climate change. Swept up in the digital identity craze, scholars, startups and consultancy firms are now proposing that technologies such as blockchain, NFTs and QR codes could be used to track the carbon footprint of items of clothing, transform the carbon-offset market or develop end-to-end carbon-emissions tracing systems.

A number of activists advocate universal basic income as a redistributive response to the climate emergency. In the view of Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis, UBI ‘could break the link between work and consumption’, which would in turn ‘dramatically reduce environmental impacts by slowing the treadmill of producing and consuming things that currently fuels untrammelled economic growth’. In countries like Brazil, millions of people receive support through biometrically administered cash grant programmes. These are not universal, nationwide programmes, but they show that large-scale financial transfer is technically feasible and could be replicated in other contexts.

To the left and right of the political spectrum, there is anxiety (sometimes understandable) about schemes of this kind, and the possibility of a ‘global carbon surveillance state’. But they invite us to consider how technology will be used to apportion rights and resources in an age of scarcity triggered by climate breakdown.