Why Bitcoin is bad for the environment

By | April 27, 2021

Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

Money, it’s often said, is a shared fiction. I give you a slip of paper or, more likely these days, a piece of plastic. You hand me eggs or butter or a White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino, and we both walk away satisfied. With cryptocurrency, the arrangement is more like a shared metafiction, and the instability of the genre is, presumably, part of the thrill. Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency that was created as a spoof, has risen in value by eight thousand per cent since January, owing to a combination of GameStop-style pumping and boosterish tweets from Elon Musk. On Tuesday, which backers proclaimed DogeDay, the cryptocurrency was valued at more than fifty billion dollars, which is more than the market cap of Ford. Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange, went public last Wednesday; almost immediately, it became worth more than G.M.

The mainstreaming of cryptocurrency, as it’s been called, is obviously a big deal for the world of finance. It’s also a big deal for the world of, well, the world. This is particularly true in the case of the ur-cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. Like Dogecoin, bitcoin has recently surged in value. In April, 2020, a coin was worth about seven thousand dollars; today, it’s worth more than fifty-five thousand. (It hit a record high of $64,895.22 on April 14th, but has since fallen off.) As the cost of investing in bitcoin has soared, so, too, has the potential profit in “mining” it. Bitcoin mining is, of course, purely metaphorical, but the results can be every bit as destructive as with the real thing.

According to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, bitcoin-mining operations worldwide now use energy at the rate of nearly a hundred and twenty terawatt-hours per year. This is about the annual domestic electricity consumption of the entire nation of Sweden. According to the Web site Digiconomist, a single bitcoin transaction uses the same amount of power that the average American household consumes in a month, and is responsible for roughly a million times more carbon emissions than a single Visa transaction. At a time when the world desperately needs to cut carbon emissions, does it make sense to be devoting a Sweden’s worth of electricity to a virtual currency? The answer would seem, pretty clearly, to be no. And, yet, here we are. [Continue reading…]

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