Lately, a general worry about cryptocurrencies harming the environment is spreading. Even among the governments and lawmakers. However, the problem isn’t focused on the whole market, but only on the coins using Proof-of-Work (PoW) for mining. That includes, especially, possible issues between Bitcoin is the first decentralized digital currency. It was created in 2009, by an anonymous founder or group of founders... and the environment.
Last March, the European Parliament proposed a ban on PoW due to environmental concerns. In the practice, such a thing would translate into a Bitcoin (An abbreviation for Bitcoin.) ban. Luckily, the proposal wasn’t approved, but the concerns remain. And why is that? Why Bitcoin can be polluting?
It’s because the system PoW consumes a lot of energy. To mine new coins, the specialized device (ASIC machine) must solve a very complex math problem. It’s so complex that even the computer struggles to find the solution and, in the process, consumes large amounts of electricity.
In case you didn’t know, a lot of electricity is usually equal to more pollution, depending on where that energy came from. According to the Cambridge Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index (CBECI), Bitcoin consumes more annual energy than Finland and Belgium, but much less than China, the US, and the gold mining industry.
Coal and other fossil fuels are common sources of electrical power worldwide. Therefore, if the energy to mine PoW cryptos comes from coal, that’d mean more damaging emissions to the planet.
On the other hand, we have ASIC machines. They were specifically designed for crypto mining and nothing else. However, they won’t last a lot of time because the difficulty of mining is always increasing. Once the useful period ends (around 1.5 years), they can become e-waste. But all of this can be solved.
Let’s check some useful ways to reconcile Bitcoin with the environment.
Using renewables and wasted energy
We already mentioned it: it all depends on the energy source. Power coming from hydroelectric stations, wind and solar farms, geothermal bases, nuclear power plants, and, generally, every source that doesn’t produce damaging emissions is welcome. The Bitcoin miners are, indeed, looking for places where clean energy is available and overabundant.
The overabundant part is also important. In a lot of places worldwide, the energy produced by local companies is so abundant that is mostly wasted. An oversupply can even cause grid congestion and produce blackouts. The miners could use this extra power and stabilize the grid.
Besides, if it doesn’t work anymore in certain places (like what happened with the China crypto ban), miners can migrate. As the CBECI states:
“In their quest for cheap and abundant energy sources, miners can set up new facilities fairly quickly all over the world, including the most remote areas. As a result, Bitcoin miners can tap into so-called ‘stranded’ energy assets that cannot easily be put to productive use by other industries. In those cases, Bitcoin miners are not competing with other industries or residential users for the same resources, but instead soaking up surplus energy that would otherwise have been lost or wasted.”
On the other hand, to make Bitcoin and all the crypto industry environmentally friendly, Energy Web created the Crypto Climate Accord. Over 250 crypto companies, NGOs, and individuals are supporting this initiative for “powering crypto with 100% renewables” by 2030.
RECs and credits to offset Bitcoin in the environment
Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) and carbon credits are quite similar. Their goal is to promote and invest in the production of renewable energies and green initiatives, even if the buyer doesn’t produce any by themselves. The RECs are issued and sold by renewable suppliers: they represent proof that 1 megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity was generated from renewables.
So, for example, a company could buy some RECs to offset electricity use from non-renewable sources. Meanwhile, the carbon credits let the investors contribute a certain monetary amount to green projects for each ton of carbon dioxide released by them into the atmosphere.
Those concepts are being applied inside the crypto mining industry and beyond. The Sustainable Bitcoin Protocol (SBP) was born with this goal. Miners worldwide can send their application to be certified sources of bitcoins issued from renewables. Then, the platform provides a new kind of REC: one Sustainable Bitcoin Certificate (SBC) for every BTC they mine. SBCs are sold to institutional investors who want to acquire Bitcoin while respecting the environment-related regulations.
On the other hand, we have the carbon credits, not only available to the miners. Any crypto company or individual could buy as many as they want, in order to offset their carbon footprint. For instance, we have Regen Network Development, an American Blockchain is a type of database storing an immutable set of data, verifiable to anyone with access to it —through... software development company. They bought $1 million in carbon credits to conserve urban forests in the region.
Despite its original purpose and short life, ASIC machines can provide something valuable for everyone —beyond new coins, of course. We mean heat. The mining process consumes a lot of energy and produces a lot of heat. Miners worldwide are developing their own cooling methods, from air cooling to immersion cooling. After all, excessive heat can damage the machines, but it’s more than a problem.
All that heat can be repurposed in several ways. Personal miners are building their own heating systems for winter. They can heat spaces and water in this way. Even a hot tub and steaming pools have been made from the wasted heat of ASIC machines. Bitcoin and the environment can be very compatible.
Food production is another useful way to recycle ASICs’ heat. In this category, we have the initiative by Genesis Mining in Sweden. They’re building mining containers with “a custom-built air duct system that carries the excess energy directly from the crypto mining storage container into the (nearby) greenhouse”. Other developers are following suit, cultivating their own tomatoes this way.
Why not change to PoS?
There’s still an elephant in the room: not all crypto systems are energy-consuming. Proof-of-Stake (PoS), for example, doesn’t consume energy to produce new coins. Instead, they rely on the amounts of coins staked (blocked) by their validators. So, why not simply abandon PoW and adopt PoS for every crypto? Bitcoin would be in peace with the environment, right?
The short answer is because of security. There’s a risk that some skilled developer copies (forks) the blockchain and jumps between the original chain where they already spent the money and the new chain where they didn’t, for example (and double-spend the same coins). There’s no “work” (energy) to verify the transactions here, only stakeholders. This is dubbed the “Nothing-at-Stake Problem” because, in the new (copied) chain, there’s nothing to lose if you cheat.
So, PoW systems are still more robust and secure. In addition, they’re considered more decentralized, because no matter how many coins anyone has, their influence is the same. That doesn’t happen with PoS. In the latter, the more coins you own, the more power you have over the network. That’s why most developers and users are still holding to PoW, despite its drawbacks.
In the future, Bitcoin and other PoW coins will need to apply better measures to preserve the environment —as we already saw, it’s perfectly possible. Regulations about this specific topic are coming worldwide. Maybe, at some point, these recommendations will become laws.
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