Article image

The hidden and destructive environmental impact of Bitcoin mining

The last decade has witnessed an unprecedented upsurge in cryptocurrency values, sparking significant investments in digital currencies. These advanced elements of modern finance, backed by breakthrough technologies like blockchain, have captured the interest of diverse investors worldwide. However, amidst this digital gold rush, a concerning aspect lurks in the shadows — the environmental toll of cryptocurrency mining, particularly Bitcoin.

Recent findings by United Nations scientists underscore the substantial environmental footprints associated with these technological marvels, highlighting an urgent need for regulatory and technological reforms.

Understanding the crypto surge

Cryptocurrencies have revolutionized investment trends over the past decade. It has attracted an eclectic mix of stakeholders, from corporate giants to individual tech enthusiasts, and even including entities operating on the fringes of legality. Their integration into the global financial landscape speaks volumes about their potential, igniting discussions about digital currencies overshadowing traditional monetary powerhouses.

However, akin to the bygone era of the gold rush, this digital currency frenzy brings with it significant environmental repercussions. The process of mining cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin, is energy-intensive. Bitcoin mining has drawn criticism and concern from environmentalists and sparked debates among investors and policymakers alike.

Dark side of bitcoin mining

A new study spearheaded by Professor Kaveh Madani at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) delved into the environmental impacts of Bitcoin mining. Scrutinizing the activities across 76 nations in the 2020–2021 period, the research unveiled startling environmental consequences, including considerable carbon, water, and land footprints.

“Technological innovations often come with unintended consequences, and Bitcoin is no exception,” remarked Professor Madani. He emphasized the findings’ implications on future digital currency policies and environmental sustainability initiatives.

The environment and bitcoin mining

Bitcoin mining globally consumed 173.42 Terawatt hours of electricity during 2020–2021, placing Bitcoin’s hypothetical energy consumption above nations like Pakistan.

The associated carbon footprint equated to burning 84 billion pounds of coal or the operation of 190 gas-fired power plants. Mitigating this environmental impact would necessitate planting 3.9 billion trees. Even if possible, this would cover an area comparable to entire countries.

Furthermore, the water and land resources strained by Bitcoin mining activities during this phase were enormous. The water footprint alone was analogous to filling over 660,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, highlighting the scale of environmental resources that cryptocurrency operations can deplete.

Bitcoin’s energy conundrum

Delving into the energy sources underpinning Bitcoin’s operations, the report uncovered a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, with coal and natural gas leading the pack. Although hydropower, a significant renewable contributor, satisfied a portion of Bitcoin’s energy demands, its environmental impact was substantial.

Moreover, other renewables like solar and wind energy constituted a minimal share of Bitcoin’s energy consumption. This fact alone raises questions about the network’s sustainability.

Particularly striking was China’s dominance in the Bitcoin mining arena, necessitating massive reforestation to offset its coal-centric operations’ carbon emissions. This revelation underscores the environmental disparities and challenges different nations face, reflecting the complex interplay of technological advancement, energy consumption, and environmental stewardship.

A call for sustainable practices

The study’s authors, including Dr. Sanaz Chamanara, highlighted the varied environmental impacts of Bitcoin mining across countries. They suggest a nuanced approach to understanding and addressing these consequences. The insights gained call for comprehensive interventions, from governmental oversight to investments in environmentally efficient digital currencies.

“It’s crucial to consider the equity and justice implications of Bitcoin mining,” Professor Madani stated.

Madani highlights the stark contrast between the entities reaping the benefits and those who will bear the environmental costs. This dichotomy serves as a clarion call for harmonizing the digital currency sector’s growth with principles of environmental justice and sustainability.

The UN report paves the way for a critical reassessment of the cryptocurrency industry’s environmental policies. Stakeholders are urged to consider the broader ecological and societal impacts.

As digital currencies continue to shape the financial future, the need for a balanced, sustainable approach becomes increasingly imperative. The global community’s response will not only influence the cryptocurrency market’s trajectory, but also define the legacy of our generation’s environmental stewardship.

The full study was published in the journal Earth’s Future.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day