How Bitcoin Is Polluting the Planet

Cryptocurrency comes at a high environmental cost.
••• DANNY HU/Moment/GettyImages

Carbon emissions from the cryptocurrency Bitcoin are getting out of control, according to a recent study by the Technical University of Munich (TUM).

The use of Bitcoin ultimately produces about 22 megatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year. This emissions level sits between those of the nations of Jordan and Sri Lanka, as reported by the study published in Joule scientific journal. In fact, according to Science Daily, it's comparable to the total emissions of cities like Hamburg and Las Vegas.

How Can Bitcoin Produce CO2?

When TUM researchers published their analysis of Bitcoin's carbon footprint in mid-June, it was the most detailed of its kind to date. The research confronted the reality of how much energy the cryptocurrency needs to operate and the potential impact of those operations on our environment.

Sure, Bitcoin is a virtual currency, but it requires real energy. To execute and validate a Bitcoin transfer, for example, a random computer in the global Bitcoin network must solve a mathematical puzzle. The computing capacity needed in the process of solving these puzzles (which is colloquially referred to as "mining Bitcoin") has quickly increased over recent years, quadrupling in 2018 alone.

Increasing computing capacity means increased demand for electricity, and Bitcoin now uses vast amounts of electricity every year, according to Daily Nation. Massive energy consumption (totaling to about 46 TeraWatt Hours, or TWh, per year) leads to massive carbon emissions (or 22 to 22.9 megatons annually).

Where's This Energy From?

After approximating Bitcoin's energy consumption, Christian Stoll, Lena Klaaben and Ulrich Gallersdorfer – the researchers who completed this study – began work to pinpoint the source of that energy.

They used live-tracking data from Bitcoin mining pools to find this information, and ended up localizing 68% of the Bitcoin network's computing power in Asia, spanning several countries. Europe was home to 17% of computing power, and North America to 15%.

The scientists used this information, combined with statistics on the carbon intensity of power generation in the countries in question, to conclude Bitcoin's annual carbon footprint.

How to Deal With It

Scientists have questioned the environmental impact of cryptocurrency for years, but this study reveals the most detailed analysis of that impact. And according to researcher Stoll in Science Daily, that analysis deserves attention.

"Naturally there are bigger factors contributing to climate change," Stoll said in Science Daily. "However, the carbon footprint is big enough to make it worth discussing the possibility of regulating cryptocurrency mining in regions where power generation is especially carbon-intensive."

He went on to suggest linking more Bitcoin mining farms to renewable energy resources to help balance out the ecological impacts. Until then, Bitcoin will emit as much CO2 into the atmosphere as a major metropolitan area.

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