Sustainability solution or climate calamity? The dangers and promise of cryptocurrency technology

The negative environmental impact of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin has been widely covered in the press in recent weeks and months, and their volatility has also been flagged as a cause for concern. Nevertheless, the UN believes that blockchain, the technology lying behind these online currencies, could be of great benefit to those fighting the climate crisis, and help bring about a more sustainable global economy.

A ‘pointless way of using energy’?
The amount of energy needed to power the Bitcoin network is staggering: Tim Berners-Lee, credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web, has gone so far as to describe “Bitcoin mining” as “one of the most fundamentally pointless ways of using energy.”

Bitcoins don’t exist as physical objects, but new coins are “mined”, or brought into circulation, through a process that involves using powerful computers to solve complex mathematical problems. This process requires so much energy, that the Bitcoin network is estimated to consume more energy than several countries, including Kazakhstan and the Netherlands. And, as fossil-fuelled power plants still make up a major portion of the global energy mix, Bitcoin mining can be said to be partly responsible for the production of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change (although, so far, the impact on the climate is far less than that of heavy hitters such as the agriculture, construction, energy, and transport sectors).

Another problem is the amount of energy needed for each transaction, which is enormous in comparison to traditional credit cards: for example, each Mastercard transaction is estimated to use just 0.0006 kWh (kilowatt hours), whilst every Bitcoin transaction consumes 980 kWh, enough to power an average Canadian home for more than three weeks, according to some commentators. More