Bitcoin alone could push global temperatures over the 2ºC catastrophic threshold by 2034 if the cryptocurrency gets adopted at the same pace as other broadly used technologies, says a new report in the journal Nature Climate Change.
You’re forgiven if you aren’t familiar with a digital currency that could single-handedly devastate the planet. “Six months ago I wasn’t either,” says Camilo Mora, lead author of the study. When coauthor, Katie Taladay, first proposed analyzing Bitcoin’s emissions, Mora thought she was kidding. “I thought it was a video game.” What came from the analysis floored the research team. From the paper: “Reducing emissions to keep warming below 2ºC is already regarded as a very difficult challenge given the increasing human population and consumption as well as a lack of political will. Then came Bitcoin.”
*Critics of this report point to how difficult it is to calculate power usage because of how dispersed the Bitcoin network is. They also point to the IT sector’s efforts in reducing its footprint. It’s not the case that energy consumption will remain fixed over the next hundred years. However, the report’s urgency points to the impact Bitcoin could have over the next 16-23 years suggesting Bitcoin (and probably every area impacting climate change) may have to act a lot faster to reduce carbon emissions.
The estimated emissions produced by Bitcoin last year alone is 69 million metric tons of CO2. Mora calls the numbers mind-blowing. “That is the source of concern for us. If this [technology] is so insignificant and the footprint is so big, can you imagine if this thing were to take off? ” As Bitcoin gains popularity, it’s energy demands increase dramatically. “We don’t have a single thing–not agriculture, not transportation–that we can think of that in two decades would be enough to warm the planet by two degrees. But Bitcoin can.”
What’s causing the emissions explosion?
Bitcoin miners are the reason for the ugly energy report card. Bitcoin has no central bank. It’s a peer-to-peer decentralized network for digital currency. Bitcoin purchases generate blocks of data. It’s like a folder with a complicated math problem inside as the key. A miner is simply anyone who wants to join the Bitcoin network and owns powerful Bitcoin processing hardware necessary to support the software capable of solving the key and verifying the Bitcoin. This makes Bitcoin super hard to counterfeit. As compensation for providing this level of computationally intensive security, miners get a percentage of the Bitcoins they verify. But verification takes an enormous amount of energy and as Bitcoin gets more broadly adopted, the energy demands increase perilously. The current analysis suggests mining data for profit is even more destructive to the planet than mining the planet itself for profit.
The researchers incorporated previous peer-reviewed methods from Digiconomist in their analysis and tracked the power efficiency of hardware used for Bitcoin mining with the geographic location of miners and the CO2 emissions of producing electricity in those regions.
Another of the paper’s authors, Randi Rollins, says their dire estimates are quite conservative. The hardware requirements for mining Bitcoin generate a lot of heat. The energy needed to cool the Bitcoin mining rigs weren’t even factored into the emissions estimates.
Is there any chance both Bitcoin and the planet can survive?
Bitcoin is public and transparent. There’s no vetting process for miners. Anyone can become one. Which is why there are no emission standards applicable to miners. It may seem like Bitcoin is an ecological fail in a global Libertarian experiment. Ironically, many Bitcoin advocates who champion libertarian values say it’s up to governments, not Bitcoin, to impose standards that require implementation of renewable energy technologies to reduce emissions. An argument can be made that Bitcoin’s emissions trajectory is no more Bitcoin’s fault as it is humanity’s fault for not hastening the transition to renewable energy. The authors of today’s paper argue that given its impact, Bitcoin needs to take an active role in solving the problem. One possible way for Bitcoin to reduce its footprint might be to make the keys easier to resolve. But this could potentially leave the currency more vulnerable to counterfeit. And if it’s easier to solve, more miners get into the market, thereby maintaining or increasing the emissions footprint as adoption increases.
We cannot predict the future of Bitcoin, but if implemented at a rate even close to the slowest pace at which other technologies have been incorporated, it will spell very bad news for climate change and the people and species impacted by it,” says Mora via press release. “With the ever-growing devastation created by hazardous climate conditions, humanity is coming to terms with the fact that climate change is as real and personal as it can be. Clearly, any further development of cryptocurrencies should critically aim to reduce electricity demand, if the potentially devastating consequences of 2°C of global warming are to be avoided.”
*Updated Oct 29th 2017 @ 10:20am PST