Today I read an article in the NY Times about bitcoin that challenged me to think about the new types of climate-related obstacles we will face in the coming years. Typically when we discuss greenhouse gas emissions, we think of transportation, manufacturing, food production, and more. These are areas that have been with us since the industrial revolution when we really first started putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What we don’t usually consider is the carbon impact of computing and online activity, including bitcoin transactions.
To summarize the NY Times article Bitcoin’s Climate Problem, bitcoin transactions require large amounts of computing power because they need to verify the transaction by solving complex mathematical equations. This computing power requires electricity which currently is largely generated by coal-fired power plants because of where this computing is happening. When you sum up all bitcoin transactions in a year, the annual amount of energy consumed by this computing is larger than all the energy consumed by the country of Argentina (see this article in BBC to learn more – https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-56012952).
This is honestly mind-boggling. You can argue that as our power grids become greener, the carbon emissions of this computing will go down. However, that is assuming that we have an abundance of green power and it’s not forcing us to continue to use less-green sources for other energy generation. And, before we reach this greener future, this cryptocurrency, a man-made innovation, will continue to make a big impact on our environment.
Of course, bitcoin is not the only source of massive computing efforts. Everyday there are innumerable transactions online, many of which lead to improved lives and a better planet and many of which do not.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, this revelation about bitcoin and computing has me considering what new challenges we are facing, and even creating for ourselves, in our digital age while we try to combat the urgent issue of climate change. It certainly requires us to consider the carbon impact of new innovations and whether they will lead to true benefits for all of us and our common home when counting all the costs.