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Hot or Not: Scientists Clash Over Mining Impact on Global Warming

Fredrik Vold
Last updated: | 2 min read

If we are to believe recent headlines, bitcoin may single handedly be responsible for pushing global warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius and ruin the environment for future generations.

Source: iStock/Ekaterina_Simonova

“Bitcoin may cause catastrophic climate change by 2033,” The Telegraph warned in an article on Monday. “Bitcoin is actually going to ruin the world,” CNET wrote, while Israeli newspaper Haaretz warned us that “[…] Bitcoin is making the world dangerously hotter, dangerously fast.”

These headlines are just some of the articles that were published yesterday following a new research report by an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the University of Hawaii, published in Nature, an international journal of science. According to the report, bitcoin “could alone produce enough CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions to push warming above 2°C within less than three decades.” However, at the same time the authors acknowledge that bitcoin mining is becoming more energy efficient.

Meanwhile, other experts and scientist who spoke with ThinkProgess, a news website backed by the think tank Center for American Progress Action Fund, described the study’s assumptions and conclusions as “reckless” and “dangerous, irresponsible, and misleading.”

Other researchers dismiss concerns

According to mechanical engineering professor Eric Masanet, head of the Energy and Resource Systems Analysis Lab at Northwestern University, the conclusions in the study can be debunked by pointing to three flaws:

First, he said, “we know that the global power sector is decarbonizing.” Secondly, the IT sector, including mining of cryptocurrencies, is becoming more and more energy efficient. Lastly, he said the authors behind the study are “insisting on tremendous growth in cryptocurrency adoption, resulting in inflated and dubious estimates of future carbon emissions.”

Arman Shehabi of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, a Department of Energy Office of Science lab managed by University of California, agreed with Masanet, and added that the authors of the study were on the wrong track by focusing on a very unlikely scenario where “the electricity demand of bitcoin transactions and the carbon emissions from that electricity demand both remain static over the next hundred years, while at the same time bitcoin immediately undergoes rapid adoption.”

He told ThinkProgress that it is “absurd” to believe the energy consumption of each individual bitcoin transaction will remain constant over the next hundred years, saying “that’s a crazy assumption in general, but downright bananas for blockchain mining.”

Back in August, Katrine Kelly-Pitou, Research Associate in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh also said that the worries about bitcoin’s energy usage are exaggerated. Instead, she argues, the important factor is not how much energy bitcoin consumes, but what the energy sources are, while advocating for more mining in countries and regions with an abundant supply of clean and renewable energy. According to Kelly-Pitou, bitcoin mining uses an exorbitant amount of power: somewhere between an estimated 30 terrawatt hours alone in 2017 alone, while banking consumes an estimated 100 terrawatts of power annually.