Researchers at the University of Hawaii calculated the electrical efficiency of the computers used in bitcoin mining as well as the emissions generated by producing electricity in those quantities and estimated that cryptocurrency-mining in 2017 emitted 69 million metric tons of CO2 – as much as 15 coal-fired power plants.
While bitcoin doesn’t even exist in the physical world, mining it requires significant generation of electricity to power the complex computations required to complete a new “block” of code in the cryptocurrency “chain.”
Further calculations indicate that if bitcoin and other cryptos are adopted globally at the slowest rate at which new technologies are generally assimilated, carbon emissions from the mining could warm the planet two degrees in 22 years. If adopted at an average rate, such a rise would only take 16 years. Given the burgeoning popularity of cryptos, driven in part by declining faith in government-backed currencies, some predict the technology will catch on even faster.
It wasn’t clear if the study took into account advances in computing technology, electrical efficiency, or emissions control when calculating our impending death-by-Bitcoin. Computing power increases every year, and it is impossible to account for all technological advances in a research model.
Bitcoin, however, is uniquely designed such that the number of Bitcoins given in reward for the electric-intensive task halves every few years, and the complexity of calculations is dynamically adjusted to compensate for the growing computing power. At the set rate, all 21 million Bitcoins will be extracted by 2140 – by which point humanity will be long extinct, if these researchers are correct.
Earlier this month, the UN’s normally conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that humans must reduce our CO2 emissions by half of 2010 levels by 2030 in order to avoid catastrophic environmental damage. Since before the Industrial Revolution and large-scale coal mining, global temperatures have already risen about one degree Celsius. Researchers say that just another .5 degrees temperature increase could cause 40cm in sea level rise along with a marked decline in crop yields.