The global embrace of digital currencies, driven significantly by Bitcoin, has come under scrutiny following a new United Nations study spotlighting the environmental detriments tied to cryptocurrency mining, extending beyond the often-cited carbon emissions to encompass water and land impacts. This study, conducted by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), delves into the activities of 76 nations involved in Bitcoin mining over the span of 2020 to 2021, painting a concerning picture of environmental degradation.
Environmental Underpinnings of Bitcoin Mining
The research delineates a substantial carbon footprint as a result of global Bitcoin mining ventures, with a power consumption tally reaching 173.42 Terawatt hours during the aforementioned period. Analogously, if Bitcoin were a sovereign entity, its energy usage would surpass that of Pakistan—a nation hosting over 230 million inhabitants. The carbon emissions resultant from this energy expenditure are likened to the burning of 84 billion pounds of coal or the operational emissions from 190 natural gas-fired power plants. A reforestation effort involving the plantation of 3.9 billion trees, encapsulating an area akin to the Netherlands, Switzerland, or Denmark, would be necessitated to counterbalance this carbon footprint.
Bitcoin mining’s environmental exigencies extend to water resources, with the volume of water implicated in these operations enough to fill over 660,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This quantum of water could alternatively meet the domestic water requisites of over 300 million individuals residing in rural sub-Saharan Africa. The land area occupied by Bitcoin mining activities globally during this period is quantified as 1.4 times the expanse of Los Angeles.
Fossil Fuel Dependence and Geographical Disparities
The study accentuates the heavy reliance of Bitcoin mining on fossil fuels, with coal constituting 45% of the energy mix, trailed by natural gas at 21%. Despite hydropower’s categorization as a renewable energy source, its utilization in Bitcoin mining, meeting 16% of the electricity demand, carries notable water and environmental implications. Additionally, nuclear energy furnishes 9% of the electricity requisites, while solar and wind energy contribute a mere 2% and 5% respectively.
China, despite recent governmental interventions dropping its share in Bitcoin mining from 73% in 2020 to 21% in 2022, remains a predominant player, necessitating the plantation of about 2 billion trees to offset its carbon emissions from Bitcoin mining during 2020-2021. Following China, the United States, Kazakhstan, Russia, Malaysia, Canada, Germany, Iran, Ireland, and Singapore are identified as leading Bitcoin mining nations. The electricity price dichotomy, exemplified by Kazakhstan’s electricity pricing being threefold cheaper than the United States, underscores the financial allure of Bitcoin mining in nations with lower energy costs, albeit with a significant environmental toll.
Call for Regulatory and Technological Interventions
Professor Kaveh Madani, the Director of UNU-INWEH, and Dr. Sanaz Chamanara, the study’s lead author, underscore the pressing need for regulatory frameworks and technological innovations to ameliorate the environmental repercussions of Bitcoin mining. While digital currencies harbor the potential to revolutionize the global financial milieu, the environmental ramifications necessitate urgent attention to ensure a sustainable trajectory. The study advocates for the exploration of more energy-efficient digital currencies, and a cognizance of the transboundary and transgenerational impacts inherent in cryptocurrency mining activities.
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