If bitcoin use continues to grow, it alone could produce enough carbon emissions to raise global temperatures by almost 4 degrees F as soon as 2033, a new study suggests.
“Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency with heavy hardware requirements,” said Randi Rollins, a master’s student at the University of Hawaii Manoa and study co-author. “And this obviously translates into large electricity demands.”
Bitcoin and other similar, power-hungry cryptocurrencies are assets that exist in digital form only and are created and exchanged independent of banks or governments. New bitcoins are created or “mined” by computers that solve complex mathematical problems.
The bitcoins are then stored in “digital wallets” – a type of virtual bank account but without anything resembling deposit insurance – from which they can be tapped to buy things.
Transactions take place and are recorded in computers around the world in a public ledger. You can buy coins on cryptocurrency “exchanges.” This whole process uses a LOT of electricity.
In fact, just last year, bitcoin use produced 69 million tons of carbon dioxide, about equal to that of Austria.
Carbon dioxide and methane are the primary greenhouse gases that have caused the Earth’s atmosphere to warm to levels that cannot be explained by natural causes, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The study authors found that if bitcoin is incorporated even at the slowest rate at which other technologies have been incorporated, its emissions will be enough to warm up the planet above 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) in just 22 years. If incorporated at the average rate of other technologies, Earth could reach that level in only 16 years.
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“Currently, the emissions from transportation, housing and food are considered as the main contributions to ongoing climate change,” said Katie Taladay, also a student at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and co-author of the paper. “In our paper, we show that bitcoin should now be put in the list of additional concerns.”
However, according to Bloomberg News, these concerns could be overblown. Cryptocurrency is nowhere near mainstream yet, and bitcoin is hardly used in everyday life, Bloomberg reported. It would be unfair to compare potential bitcoin adoption with previous consumer-technology, according to Bloomberg’s Michael Wilshire.
Still, study lead author Camilo Mora said that “with ever-growing devastation from climate hazards, humanity is coming to terms 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 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) of global warming are to be avoided.”
The study was published Monday in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Climate Change.
Contributing: Russ Wiles, The Arizona Republic