Bitcoin's Carbon Footprint May Not Be As Massive As Previously Estimated

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Whether Bitcoin, an immaterial resource derived from hype and blind faith, will vanish into thin air is uncertain, but it will leave behind a dark cloud of carbon pollution. Cryptocurrency mining facilities use so much energy that the government of Abkhazia cut power to 15 mining centers last year. A Norway Parliamentary representative has called Bitcoin, in particular, the “most dirty form of cryptocurrency output.” Some researchers have estimated that Bitcoin alone could push us over the critical two-degree celsius threshold.

But a new study shows that its carbon footprint is not as big as we thought! Moderately good news for a thing typically generating headlines of hacks, bubbles, thievery, money laundering, anonymity failures, scammers, and more scammers.

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Digiconomist, the data project behind the widely-cited Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, has estimated that the Bitcoin mining network generates 34.73 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year, comparable to Denmark; this study puts it at a more modest 17.29 megatonnes in 2018. (For a middle ground, see this study from June that estimated an annual output of 22.9 megatonnes of carbon dioxide from bitcoin mining.) The new finding paints a less-horrific picture, but it’s still nearly as much as the city of Vancouver. The computational hardware to mine Bitcoin packs a lot of muscle, as miners furiously race to automate the solution to complicated equations—the first person with the solution gets the freshly minted bitcoin.

Unlike previous studies, co-author Susanne Köhler told Gizmodo that they factored in both the efficiency of mining equipment and fossil fuel dependency in various locations, based on the number of tries to mine a block there. We know that Bitcoin is heavily mined in China, for example, which generates more electricity from coal than any other country in the world. (And is adding much more, despite its promises.) But rather than basing calculations on China’s overall carbon output, they considered the fact that Bitcoin mined in the Sichuan province would probably be “greener” due to the province’s “large share in hydropower.” Plus, China may be scaling back its Bitcoin production. Earlier this year, police in Zhenjiang reportedly shut down a bootleg operation after an energy company reported that the mining syndicate had drained $3 million of electricity; in April, the government proposed shutting down cryptocurrency mining altogether, partially because of the pollution.

Köhler emphasized that “nobody knows the exact location of the miners,” but that they intended to make clear the “uncertainties of such estimations explicit and to provide a range of possible outcomes.”

Those outcomes are still very hard to pin down, Ethan Lou, author of the upcoming book Once a Bitcoin Miner, told Gizmodo. Lou, an early Bitcoin investor and founder of a cryptocurrency mining startup, has compared Bitcoin to the oil industry, writing for the Guardian that “Bitcoin’s environmental footprint will haunt it.”

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“I won’t be surprised if another study comes out a few months down the line with drastically higher or lower figures,” he said via email, given that precise information on location, types of machines, and electricity sources is elusive. “[M]ethods are constantly being refined.”

The latest study tempers things a bit, but still, at what cost? Do we really want to exacerbate climate change on hype and a gamble, a godforsaken currency that’s worthless in a practical sense, that has depleted bank accounts and added a few more dudes to America’s population of millionaires? And tragically leaving us with John McAfee’s unfulfilled promise that he will eat his own dick?

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About the author

Whitney Kimball

Staff reporter, Gizmodo. wkimball @ gizmodo