The Environmental Toll of NFTs
- The Non-Fungible Token (NFT) craze is an environmental blitz.
- What’s behind the massive energy use.
- Solutions to the problem.
The high environmental toll of NFTs
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article outlining the Non-Fungible Token (NFT) process. For a brief moment, I considered turning some of my art into NFTs. That moment soon passed after I realized the staggering environmental toll behind buying and selling NFTs. While fads come and go with little impact (anyone remember Cabbage Patch dolls?), NFTs are unique in that they not only cause environmental harm when they are first bought and sold, but they continue to consume vast amounts of energy every time a piece is resold. In other words, while purchasing used goods, like clothing or housewares, has a fraction of the environmental impact of buying new, the same is not true of NFTs. Every time any NFT transaction takes place, whether it’s for a newly minted piece or for a resale, massive amounts of energy are required to fuel the transaction.
Why do NFT Transactions Consume So Much Energy?
The enormous environmental costs associated with NFTs is tied to the way the network they are built on is secured. Ethereum, the blockchain which holds the NFTs, uses a compute intensive Proof-of-work (PoW) protocol to prevent double spending, economic attacks, and other manipulations . PoW was designed to be computationally inefficient: Basically, the more complexity involved in creating one, the higher the security .
The validation of ownership and transactions via PoW is based on search puzzles of hash functions– cryptographic algorithms that map any-size inputs of any size to a unique output of a fixed bit length. These challenging puzzles, which must be solved by networks, increase in complexity according to the price of cryptocurrency, how much power is available, and how many requests there are for new blocks . As NFTs take off, demand surges and the entire systems struggles to keep up, fueling demand for more and more warehouses, more cooling, and more electricity consumption.
Many organizations and individuals have attempted to ballpark the exact carbon footprint of NFTs, and most of those paint the process in a poor light. A single NFT transaction has been estimated to have a carbon footprint equal to the energy required to:
- Keep the lights on for 6 months (or more) in an art studio .
- Produce 91 physical art prints 
- Mail 14 art prints ,
- Process 101,088 VISA transactions ,
- Watch 7,602 hours of YouTube ,
- Drive 500 miles in a standard American gas-powered car .
Although it is challenging to ascertain the exact environmental cost of NFTs, much work has been reported on the more established Bitcoin, which runs on similar principles. For example, Elon Musk’s recent dabbling with PoW-based Bitcoin used so much energy in just a few days, that is negated the amount of carbon emissions reduced by every Tesla ever sold .
Digital artist Everest Pipkin, writing on the state of cryptoart in a blog post, states
“This kind of gleeful wastefulness is, and I am not being hyperbolic, a crime against humanity” .
What is the Solution?
Steps have been taken toward more energy efficiency. For example, Ethereum is attempting to move to a more energy efficient consensus mechanism called proof-of-stake (PoS). However, this is faltering out of the starting gate. A post on the Ethereum website states “…getting PoS right is a big technical challenge and not as straightforward as using PoW to reach consensus across the network.”  In other words, while we wait (potentially for years) for Ethereum to “get in right”, we’re busy polluting the atmosphere like it’s 1972.
Some digital artists have attempted to make their transaction carbon neutral by planting trees or creating sustainable farms, but their efforts have backfired. For example, artist John Gerrard recently created a “carbon-neural” NFT video piece called Western Flag . The carbon-neutrality was a result of investment in a “a cryptofund for climate and soil”. However, Gerrard’s piece caused more buzz for NFTs, fueling more creations by more artists—most of whom did not even attempt to offset their transactions by planting trees ; Not that planting trees to alleviate emissions guilt works anyway. Critics have equated tree planting offset schemes as nothing more than a fig leaf .
“Robert” by Zac Freeman.
The real solution? Pass this fad by. Instead, support artists who create sustainable art, like assemblage artist Zac Freeman. Freeman, a resident artist at CoRK arts district in Jacksonville, Florida, creates art in the real-world from found objects: throwaway items like used Lego bricks, paper clips and plastic bottle tops.
“If I can get my art in front of 10,000 people and get them to think about disposable goods and cultural consumerism,” says Freeman, “I’ve achieved my goal.”
For the environmental cost of a single NFT transaction, you can get Zac (or any other artist) to ship you 14 prints. Or, for the price of one animated flying cat with a pop-tart body , you can commission Zac to create assemblage pieces of your entire extended family. I know which option I would choose.
Carbon Footrprint Image: By Author
“Robert” by Zac Freeman. Used with the artist’s permission. http://zacfreeman.com/
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