12 NOVEMBER 2021

The Environmental Damage Behind Crypto Art

Author: Jana Pavlovska, North Macedonia

Today’s generations have once again lived to experience a new addition to the information society. Artists have found the right time to bring to people’s attention the modern artsy ecosystem – crypto art. Sites such as SuperRare, Nifty Gateway, Marketplace, and many more, have made it possible for artists in the digital space to build a name for themselves by simply buying an iPad, instead of getting dirty by practicing the traditional painting methods. If one reads the news, by now they must have read about the digital artist Beeple and his success in selling $582,000 worth of NFTs in only 5 minutes. This is yet another of example the impact of the new technological developments and their rapid spread. The complex math that has created this generation’s growth may appear as a grand improvement to the knowledge society, however, its impacts on the environment do show otherwise.

Leonardo da Vinci’s, Picasso’s artwork is collectively placed in museums and art galleries all around the world. What makes their art valuable is that it was originally created/drawn by them. The creator of an art piece can be traced down through history and time.

In the digital world, this works differently. One can draw some pictures, make a 3D gif or clip art, however tracing down the owner comes with many difficulties. It is easy to copy or download digital art, yet this act does not make one the possessor. With blockchain technology, by developing blocks with unique sets of numbers and letters the art can be traced to an owner. This does not apply only for artwork. In short, blockchains give unique identifiers to certain items verifying that they are the owner, the artist, and therefore making it unique/ valuable.

The following part contains a short explanation of some of the terms connected to the topic of crypto art. First, what is crypto art? For those who have not heard of it, crypto art is art that uses blockchain technology as a way of creation and distribution. In order to visualize how blockchain technology works, one can relate it to a spreadsheet but with certain unusual rules applied. This sheet only goes one way, meaning nothing can be deleted, added, or in any way altered in the previous columns, and the following ones must be approved by complex math operations. Much like regular spreadsheets, these ones are also useful for tracking transactions. All attempts to make changes in terms of transactions and ownership will be written down, which makes this technology secure.

Another important term is NFT (Non-Fungible Tokens), particularly the T – tokens. NFTs are once again blockchain technology that allows the collection and exchange just about anything, in this case, it’s art. So what one has to do in order to participate is to create art and then generate it as an NFT-based consumer good (tokenize it), making him/her an owner of a digital peace of art. Even though crypto art sounds exceptionally cool, not many know it’s exceptionally bad for the environment. Blockchain technology has been labeled as “unnecessary pollution”, “energy guzzler” and “ecological disaster”. Ever since the modernization and revaluation of cryptocurrencies in 2017, the so-called crypto mining process has rapidly increased and participation in the crypto scene has become a hit. On a personal scale, this may seem enriching, however, from an environmentalist’s point of view the mining is only followed by poor air quality and a rise in CO2 emissions. Before coming in with the facts, it is important to understand how blockchain technologies, which are a virtual phenomenon and part of the Internet, have such an effect on the environment. In short, the Internet still relies on physical servers, which are connected by cables and routers forming liaisons on a global level. These physical servers need energy, in order to be able to run properly, which comes from power sources such as natural gases or coal which by burning eventually release large amounts of CO2 emissions. Energy usage and the amount of CO2 released show a positive correlation.

Crypto art relays on Ethereum (open-source blockchain) for tracking down transactions/buying and selling art. Eutherium mining has a staggering effect on the environment. In its current state the entire Ethereum network consumes more electricity than a number of countries. Per transaction it consumes 34 KWh, this amount of electricity cold power 1.14 U.S. households powered for one day. The blockchain identifiers are based on math. Large series of calculations must be made in order to create new identifiers. The more computers do these calculations, the more energy usage, which is needless to say alarming for the environment. While it is not entirely necessary to do as many calculations in order to verify the origin, this has become a trusted verification system for the global cryptocurrency network in order to ensure that no one is tampering with such a global scale of transactions. A research by Memo Akten shows the unethical and unnecessary amounts of energy usage and emissions we are blasting in the air just by e.g. tracking sales and bids on the blockchain.

Even though it is an interesting concept, simply disregarding the fact that crypto art is not environmentally friendly will not solve the problem. If interested, look up a piece of crypto art on this website and it will depict the amount of energy it uses as well as the emissions, compared to an EU resident’s electricity consumption calculated in years. The crypto art is still an infant in its early years, which should be seen as a warning considering the amounts of energy it consumes.

Look on the bright side researchers have already taken the seriousness of the problem into account and are said to be working on solutions to reduce the environmental damage caused. Having in mind the damages, cryptocurrencies should not be considered the currencies of the future. However, if one were to switch to more ecofriendly energy sources, such as solar, hydro, wind energy we could be looking at lower emissions resulting in noticeable improvements over a period of time.

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