Photo by Lucy Chian on Unsplash
Bitcoin mining, it turns out, damages the earth more than more traditional environmental assaults like actual mineral mining.
According to a paper published Monday in Nature Sustainability, the power-hungry Bitcoin mining process consumes more than triple the amount of energy needed to mine the equivalent amount of gold, more than quadruple what’s needed for copper, and more than double what it takes to mine platinum.
Other coins didn’t fare much better. By their measurements, Ethereum and Litecoin consume 7 megajoules of electricity to produce the equivalent of $1, the same energy expenditure as copper mining but more than that of platinum or gold. Monero eats up 14 megajoules to produce $1.
Naturally, these measurements refer to the notoriously variable dollar valuations of such tokens. “While the market prices of the coins are quite volatile,” write researchers Max J. Krause and Thabet Tolaymat, “the network hashrates for three of the four cryptocurrencies have trended consistently upward, suggesting that energy requirements will continue to increase.”
Bitcoin’s Growing Electricity Bill is Bigger Than Some Countries
We’ve long known that Bitcoin is unsustainable. In a 2015 article for Motherboard, Christopher Malmo pointed out that a single Bitcoin transaction used 5,033 times as much energy as a Visa swipe, and could power 1.5 American homes for a day.
The electricity used to crunch Bitcoin code—and its environmental cost—has been growing with its increasing popularity. Digiconomist’s Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index shows Bitcoin currently consuming 73.12 terawatt hours (or 263.232 billion megajoules) of electricity annually. To put that in context, it’s comparable to the amount of energy it takes to power Austria for a year.
That means there are 175ish countries on earth using less energy than Bitcoin (to say nothing of crypto on the whole), while 66 countries consume less energy per capita than one Bitcoin transaction (it takes 94 thousand kilowatt hours of electricity to mine a single Bitcoin).
Iceland, a major hub of Bitcoin mining farms, spends nearly as much energy on Bitcoin as it does powering its residential homes. In this case, the damage is mitigated because most of Iceland’s power comes from renewable energy.
Canada’s Bitcoin emissions are also on the lower end due to renewable energy sources. They’re using this to court mining companies from China, where mining emissions are about four times that of Canada’s. Montreal International attracts foreign investment by calling Quebec the land of “green bitcoin”. This has caught the eye of some Chinese mining companies looking to go overseas as the Chinese government has discouraged expansion and shut down some mining operations altogether.
Depending on Bitcoin’s growth, some have projected that it could use as much energy as the entire world by 2020.
Digital Currency Has a Real Carbon Footprint
Krause’s and Tolaymat’s research reminds us of the sobering reality that all this invisible wealth has real world costs.
For the 30 months they measured between January 2016 and June 2018, they estimate their four featured tokens collectively belched out at least 3 million tons of CO2 emissions, possibly as much as 15 million tons.
These findings follow another study, published last month, which determined Bitcoin alone could add two degrees Celcius to global warming within the next three decades. That’s enough to raise ocean acidity by 29 percent.
Solving Bitcoin’s Energy Consumption Crisis
So what is the solution? If the world were to switch to 100 percent renewable energy overnight, the problem would be moot. But we can’t hold our breath for that. There could be ways of incentivizing clean energy so greener mines reap more coins, or of implementing clean energy in other ways.
It’s also possible to adopt less computationally intensive mining algorithms so the mining computers don’t guzzle as much juice. This would disappoint a lot of old school Bitcoiners who have invested in hardware, but their feelings don’t really outweigh that 2 degrees celcius that everyone will have to live with (or die by).
Whatever the best solution turns out to be, something needs to change soon. Bitcoin is growing up, and it’s time for it to mature into something more sustainable.