Bitcoin mining, the process by which the prominent cryptocurrency is created, is well-known to be energy intensive, but the environmental impact of it has not been extensively studied. People have described Bitcoin as ‘digital gold.’ A new analysis by researchers at the University of New Mexico has found that Bitcoin mining shouldn’t be compared to gold mining. It is more appropriately compared to the creation of much more energy-intensive products such as beef, natural gas, and crude oil.
Furthermore, the study found that rather than becoming more sustainable over time, Bitcoin mining is becoming dirtier and more damaging to the climate as long as it relies upon fossil-fuel generated electricity. Estimates are that in 2020, Bitcoin mining used 75.4 terawatt hours of electricity, which is more electricity than the entire country of Austria, as well as 150 other nations around the world.
The study looked at the economic cost of the air pollution and carbon emissions associated with Bitcoin mining and found that in many instances, the negative economic impact of creating a single Bitcoin is more than what the resultant coin is worth.
Based on the market value of Bitcoins, the cost of climate damage for that value is a little less that that of electricity produced by natural gas and gasoline produced from crude oil, but actually more than that of beef production.
There are multiple cryptocurrencies. Ether is one that voluntarily switched away from so-called proof-of-work mining. Whether Bitcoin or others will act similarly absent potential regulation remains to be seen. Until such time, Bitcoin mining remains an increasingly dirty and damaging business.
Photo, posted May 11, 2017, courtesy of Komers Real via Flickr.