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Things You Should Know But Don’t: Cryptocurrency’s Carbon Footprint

Posted September 27, 2021

A little while back, the term NFT entered the popular lexicon. The acronym stands for “non-fungible token”, which does little to explain its meaning to us mere mortals. There are plenty of articles that go into detail explaining exactly what an NFT is and how it functions, most of which cause more confusion than clarity.  But in short: an NFT is a one-of-a-kind ticket that proves you own all rights to a piece of digital content, whether it’s a piece of art, music, poetry, etc.  Anything you can create in a digital format can become an NFT if you want to monetize it by selling it. If there is a buyer, they can then resell the NFT.  Thus, NFTs are, for all intents and purposes, a form of cryptocurrency.

There was a decent amount of buzz around NFTs when word first got out about them. The online artist community got up in arms on both sides, defending and reprimanding those selling them. People who began selling NFTs were openly criticized – popular band, Gorillaz, actually had a short-lived campaign where they tried to sell NFTs. Backlash from fans caused them to rescind their decision. They’re just one example of celebrities selling NFTs or endorsing various cryptocurrencies.

It can be hard to understand, at first, why some people got heated about NFTs. An independent artist selling their digital art to make a living should be a good thing. It can easily be seen as a further progression of the world of art into the modern era. After all, no one is mad when an artist sells a traditional sculpture or a painting for thousands of dollars. So there’s really no issue, right?


The problem is that cryptocurrency is terrible for the environment and, as a form of cryptocurrency, many people have called out artists selling their work as NFTs. But it can be hard to conceptualize exactly how a digital coin leaves a carbon footprint. So, why are they so bad?

Investors in cryptocurrency often use a process called “mining” to increase their revenue. Simply put, mining involves super-computers solving complex math problems and being rewarded with cryptocurrency when they succeed. The amount earned is small, but if multiplied it can lead to a steady and significant source of income. As a result, people have dedicated a lot of resources to this process. The energy used by computers mining for Bitcoin alone outpaces the energy use of entire countries, like Sweden or Ukraine. It generates roughly 37 million tons of CO2 per year and produces electronic waste that is also on par with small countries.

It’s up for debate whether NFTs are more harmful than regular cryptocurrency, but whether they are worse or equivalent does not change the fact that they are having a negative impact. The energy required for the upkeep of the internet alone is already playing a part in global warming. The added development of cryptocurrency mining has undoubtedly made things even more dour. There’s a worry that cryptocurrency could sneak in and become the way of the future, with little regard for or knowledge of its impact on Earth until it’s too late. Many would argue that it is already too late. Has our reliance on technology dragged us down too far? For as many problems as technology seems to solve, it creates new ones in its wake that are largely being ignored. Should NFTs be part of the environmental debate? Or is finding another way to sell art more important?

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