Bitcoin’s soaring popularity could have a long-lasting negative effect on the environment.
Cryptocurrency mining requires significant computer power and electricity, and the increase in bitcoin purchases leaves behind a hefty carbon footprint.
But just how much is bitcoin mining contributing to global warming?
In China alone, bitcoin is projected to generate more than 130 million metric tons of carbon emissions by the time the technology’s energy consumption peaks in 2024, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.
That amount of greenhouse gases would have surpassed the total annual emissions output from the Czech Republic and Qatar in 2016. The bitcoin blockchain could consume as much energy per year as small to medium-sized countries such as Denmark, Ireland or Bangladesh, according to research from Sinan Kufeogl, civil engineering research associate at the University of Cambridge.
As bitcoin has grown in popularity, China has become a mecca for the technology. If China’s bitcoin industry were a country, its total energy consumption would have ranked 12th globally in 2016, ahead of major economies like Italy and Saudi Arabia, according to the study. With specialized hardware and cheap electricity readily available, the country now accounts for more than 75% of the bitcoin network’s hashing power — the power a computer or hardware uses to run and solve algorithms that generate new cryptocurrency sums and allow transactions between them.
“Since the bitcoin mining industry is so new, it has not been properly accounted for and regulated around the world,” Shouyang Wang, a co-author of the study and professor at Chinese Academy of Sciences, told CNN Business.
Bitcoin mining hardware has evolved as the cryptocurrency’s popularity has increased over time. At its inception, bitcoin mining went through a basic Central Processing Unit (CPU) on a general-purpose computer, the study’s authors say.
The process then evolved and shifted to Graphic Processing Units (GPUs), which offered more power, higher hash rates and ultimately led to more energy consumption. Eventually, Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) were introduced to optimize the mining-related calculations.
Cryptocurrency mining hardware is constantly running, which also increases energy consumption. Between January 1, 2016, and June 30, 2018, the mining operations for four major cryptocurrencies released up to an estimated 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to a separate study in the research journal Nature Sustainability.
The growth of these emissions could have massive implications for the entire planet.
China is a key signatory of the Paris Agreement and has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060. But the country remains the world’s largest contributor of greenhouse gases, and the study’s authors say bitcoin mining could compromise the country’s attempts at emissions reductions.
“It is important to provide miners with incentives to move their operations to clean-energy regions,” Wang said. “That is why building and upgrading the clean-energy power generation facilities to ensure consistent electricity generation is important.”