Bitcoin shows the scale of change needed to stop the climate crisis

The cryptocurrency produces as much CO2 a year as a million transatlantic flights - and that number is set to grow. 

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Bitcoin is burning a hole in our future. The cryptocurrency now produces as much CO2 a year as a million transatlantic flights. What’s more, that number is set to grow by design. Bitcoin is essentially a computational race among a peer-to-peer network to crack increasingly complex algorithms without any intrinsic meaning or utility, calculations that demand ever more processing power to complete, devouring energy overwhelmingly sourced from fossil fuels.

In an era of accelerating climate crisis, driven primarily by carbon emissions, it is a technological innovation of violence towards current and future generations. The scaling of Bitcoin and the proliferation of similar technologies and practices would all but lock in deep and violent climatic instability, from extreme weather events and collapsing food and water security to rising sea levels and biodiversity loss in the decades ahead. Driven by techno-libertarians deeply opposed to collective institutions and public governance, the idea of Bitcoin is rooted in a politics that will guarantee growing environmental crisis given the need for economic and political co-ordination to bring us rapidly within the safe operating spaces of the planet.

If we wanted a metaphor for the worst excesses and circuits of accumulation driving us deeper into the Anthropocene, our new geological era of human-driven planetary breakdown, Bitcoin would be a good candidate. But what, practically, is Bitcoin? In brief, Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a purely digital medium of exchange based on computational code breaking.  The architecture of the currency is designed to do away with the need for a centralised “treasury”, central bank or other actors that reconcile and oversee transactions; it is a peer-to-peer currency, based not on social confidence or collective monetary or governance institutions but mathematics and private computing power.

Critically, “mining” – the decentralised process by which a transaction is computed, validated and added to the permanent record of the network – is a voracious consumer of energy. The scale of consumption is astonishing. The bitcoin network is estimated to consume at least 2.6GW of power globally. To put this into context, according to the International Energy Agency, if Bitcoin were a country it would already be the 39th biggest energy consumer. The journal Nature, meanwhile, has calculated that the annual carbon footprint of Bitcoin and Ethereum (the other major cryptocurrency) is comparable to a country of roughly seven million European inhabitants. Moreover, energy economists have predicted the network’s consumption could rise to 7.7GW before the end of the year. This would be equivalent to almost 0.5 per cent of the world's electricity consumption.

These numbers are only likely to grow at present. The network is designed to continue to ratchet up energy use. Each transaction requires a huge and growing amount of calculation to process a financial transaction, which in turn requires energy. As Alex Hern, the Guardian’s technology reporter, succinctly puts it, “in simplified terms, bitcoin mining is a competition to waste the most electricity possible by doing pointless arithmetic quintillions of times a second.”

If the energy used was renewable and the network’s computing infrastructure built through non-extractive means, rapidly scaling energy use might be less of a problem. However, roughly two-thirds of all cryptocurrency mining is conducted in China and is overwhelmingly powered by coal plants, driven by a peculiar marriage of libertarian technologies, the directive power of Chinese state capitalism, and the energy geography of the Middle Kingdom.

At the same time, the network is designed to adjust to the difficulty of mining so that no matter how much computing power there is on the network, only one block is produced every ten minutes. As such, we can’t rely on the rising power efficiency of mining computers to lessen the network’s environmental impacts. Given the zero-sum nature of Bitcoin, efficiency improvements will only encourage “miners” to run more machines for the same power use, increasing their chance of cracking the algorithm, rather than seeing a tailing off of energy consumption. 

As we confront a world of mounting environmental collapse – collapse rooted and driven by extractive and carbon-heavy models of development that Bitcoin exemplifies in many ways – there are three wider lessons we can learn from considering the network and its effects.

First, we need to recognise that digitalisation does not mean complete de-materialisation, and the separation of economic and social activities from having a physical footprint. Computation, whether used for cryptocurrency mining or performing the calculations that make our smartphones tick over, is not a magic, weightless act. It is a thermodynamic process. Calculation is powered by energy, energy that remains predominantly carbon-based in source, and will likely remain so globally for decades to come, as Jeremy Grantham – funder of the Grantham Institute at LSE and Imperial College researching climate change - has recently and worryingly pointed out.

These emissions, in turn, are driving natural systems breakdown on a growing scale. In other words, we cannot escape from natural constraints and finite limits by retreating to a digital world. Even there, we are connected to depleting physical systems and contained by planetary boundaries. To paraphrase Beckett, “we’re on Earth, there’s no cure for that”.

It is critical we grasp this, as the environmental footprint of digital technologies is set to explode. Data centres – the vast calculating nodal points of contemporary life – are shortly set to overtake the entire aviation industry in terms of its carbon footprint. Indeed, the “datafication” of society – as the amount of connected devices that generate and transmit data exponentially expands – is predicted by some to consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025, and generate 14 per cent of global emissions by 2040. These growing challenges are on top of the brutal conditions by which most rare earth minerals that underpin “smart” devices are mined. 

In other words, decarbonisation on the scale and pace we need, both in the UK and globally, will necessarily involve increasing de-materialisation and the adoption and use of more efficient technologies. We should actively seek to accelerate this process. But we must also recognise, and not turn a blind eye to, the material impacts that digitalisation is having around the planet. As such, we must not await salvation in technological change but instead actively organise to change the conditions by which energy and materials are produced and consumed.  

Second, the political impulse behind Bitcoin and its intertwining with questions of planetary limits and political economy demands that we better interrogate technologies and their use. Technologies, as the voracious demand of cryptocurrencies show, have the power to reshape flows of energy and matter, attention and information. This is the purpose not just of technology, but ultimately, of politics. Rather than uncritically embracing the technological moonshots of Silicon Valley – from geoengineering of the Earth’s atmosphere to Thorium reactors funded by Bill Gates – we should examine what hierarchies of power technologies sustain or amplify and recognise how they and they wider technical systems they constitute intimately pattern and structure our lives.

If technologies are systems embedded in wider social, economic and natural systems, we can and should seek to more actively shape their development and use through politics. What could this mean in practical terms?  For a start, the shutting down of power to large server farms powering bitcoin mining in parts of China and Canada suggest there are direct and powerful ways of intervening in the case of the network. It could also mean seeking to repurpose the blockchain technology that in part underlies Bitcoin, but use it to improve co-operation in economic activities in ways that can reduce our environmental activities. Allied to the exponential expansion of data matched to accelerating computing power, it could help us solve questions of co-ordination we need to resolve to build a sustainable and resilient economy.

Third, Bitcoin is rooted in a desire to build a currency and network that evades the need for intermediary institutions to govern our interactions, whether that is the central bank or the nation-state. As the urbanist and technologist Adam Greenfield argues, it is a deeply private political project. But at whatever institutional setting, the challenges of the Anthropocene will demand more co-ordination and collaboration, not less, if we’re to have any hope of navigating our future and avoiding conditions of collapse.

If we can learn these lessons, we can consign Bitcoin to being a metaphor for a dying carbon civilisation, while we build a better, more sustainable and just alternative.

Mathew Lawrence is senior research fellow at IPPR and editor of IPPR Progressive Review. He works on project on understanding and responding to environmental collapse and tweets @dantonshead