“Last week, we tweeted a reminder that Mozilla accepts cryptocurrency donations,” Mozilla wrote on January 6.
“This led to an important discussion about cryptocurrency’s environmental impact. We’re listening, and taking action.”
“I founded Mozilla and I’m here to say f**k you and f**k this”
The foundation’s December 31 announcement had been slammed by one of the browser’s creators.
“I founded Mozilla and I’m here to say f**k you and f**k this,” Jamie Zawinski said on January 3.
“Everyone involved in the project should be witheringly ashamed of this decision to partner with planet-incinerating Ponzi grifters.”
The Mozilla spat hints at a key theme for cryptocurrency in 2022: after the boom year of 2021, the debate over its carbon footprint is set to spill over.
The world’s poor suffer most
According to researchers Peter Howson and Alex de Vries, it’s not just the absolute energy use of cryptocurrencies that’s a problem—bitcoin’s electricity usage alone, at around 200 terawatt hours per year, is now comparable to that of Thailand—it’s the way the environmental and social costs of the network are distributed globally.
“Those who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to bitcoin’s climate costs”
“The unsustainable trajectory of some cryptocurrencies disproportionately impacts poor and vulnerable communities where cryptocurrency producers and other actors take advantage of economic instabilities, weak regulations, and access to cheap energy and other resources,” Howson and de Vries write in a new paper, published in Energy Research and Social Science.
For example, say Howson and de Vries, when China’s government imposed a ban on cryptocurrency mining last year, much of this activity moved to less politically stable ex-Soviet borderlands, where electricity supplies are often accessed illicitly, fuelling conflict over resources.
According to a recent calculation, Kazakhstan had acquired 18 percent of the bitcoin network’s processing power by late 2021, causing intermittent blackouts as the country’s electricity grid became overloaded.
In another case, say de Vries and Howson, local people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were outcompeted by bitcoin miners for access to cheap renewable energy.
Meanwhile, the researchers say, the rising electronic waste caused by cryptocurrency mining—with bitcoin miners under pressure to switch to new, more efficient machines every 1-2 years—is also felt disproportionately by those in poorer countries.
E-waste, which is often falsely labelled as electronic goods or as charitable donations, is often channelled to China and India, de Vries and Howson say.
“Those who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to bitcoin’s climate costs,” they write in their paper.
Greening crypto mining
In an effort to address such concerns, more than 200 cryptocurrency market participants have now joined the Crypto Climate Accord, a private sector initiative set up in 2021.
The Accord’s aims are to achieve net-zero emissions from the electricity consumption associated with all of their respective crypto-related operations by 2030 and to report progress toward this net-zero emissions target using the best industry practices.
Some crypto enthusiasts argue that energy-intensive proof-of-work mining—the algorithm behind bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies—fits well into electricity grids that are increasingly powered by renewable sources.
This is because crypto miners can act as the buyer of last resort in power networks where a temporary excess of renewable supply can sometimes drive prices below zero.
Howson and de Vries dismiss this argument, however, saying that cryptocurrency miners usually run their machines 24/7 and cannot rely on intermittent renewable energy sources to meet their energy requirements.
In their new paper, the researchers also accused one of the signatories to the Crypto Climate Accord of greenwashing.
“Luxxfolio Holdings, a Canadian digital asset company, is a signatory of the Accord, highlighting their ‘commitment to green cryptocurrency mining and exchange’, Howson and de Vries said.
“However, Luxxfolio continue to operate a 15 MW cryptocurrency mining operation in the Navajo Nation territory, New Mexico, produced using the Navajo’s coal reserves,” they said.
Meanwhile, contrary to global initiatives to address climate change, cryptocurrency mining has brought fossil fuel production back online in many parts of the world.
“Increasing bitcoin prices and the relatively low cost of fossil fuels has enabled redundant coal, oil, and gas plants to reopen specifically for bitcoin mining. Burning inexpensive, yet highly polluting coal tailings is also an increasingly popular energy production method for bitcoin mining,” said Howson and de Vries.
Carbon tax, offsetting or a ban
In their paper, Howson and de Vries outline four policy options for addressing cryptocurrencies’ energy use: promoting voluntary private-sector commitments to using only renewable energy, encouraging a system of voluntary carbon offsetting, using existing financial regulations and tax frameworks, and imposing national or international bans on cryptocurrency mining.
“A global coordinated ban is likely to prove the most effective policy option”
However, they reach the conclusion that only an outright ban on proof-of-work mining—the drastic step taken by China last year—is an adequate response to the growing climate costs of cryptocurrency.
“Every hour of every day in 2021, bitcoin used an amount of energy equivalent to leaving on several hundred billion lightbulbs,” they say.
“Bitcoin is cancelling out breakthroughs for global climate governance in other areas. For example, global take-up of electric vehicles has prevented 50 Mt CO2e so far. This is significantly less than bitcoin’s carbon footprint for a single year.”
“In tackling the many social and environmental impacts of PoW mining explored in this paper, a global coordinated ban is likely to prove the most effective policy option.”
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