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The Environmental Impact Of NFTs
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The Environmental Impact Of NFTs

December 12, 2021

Wylie is a large suburb in Collin County in northeast Texas. Located just shy of 25 miles from downtown Dallas, there’s nothing particularly striking about this relatively small community (by American standards) of around 50,000 people. Named after Col. W.D. Wylie, a railway engineer who, according to historians, was rather keen on having a town named after him. His wish was granted in 1887.

This sleepy suburb has had a rather unremarkable history.  It’s the 19th safest city in Texas, and, up to the 1960s, Wylie was known as the Onion Capital of the World because of the sweet white onions that grow in the area.

Then, on April 11, 2016, Wylie gained notoriety for a far more sinister event. A savage hailstorm produced stones the size of softballs. On that day, during the afternoon and evening, Wylie -and many other communities around Texas, but to a lesser degree- was bombarded with gigantic hailstones that caused widespread damage. According to local authorities, 80% of homes were affected. While there were no fatalities, the event resulted in a $220-$280m repair bill for Wylie.

The cause of this freak weather event was a supercell thunderstorm that traversed Texas on a east-southeast path. The 2016 hail season was, in fact, the most severe in the Lone Star State’s history.

This massive storm was no isolated event. Heavy rain caused flash flooding in Deshler, Ohio, on April 26, and on September 4 in north-central Kansas. Unstable atmospheric conditions sparked tornadoes on November 27 along the central plains region. Nothing unusual about tornadoes in this area, apart from the fact that tornadoes almost never develop that late in the year.

Storms are not infrequent events in Texas, but the hailstorm that battered Wylie in 2016 was certainly unusual. Climate change does affect the severity of hailstorms, among many other effects. And climate change is a hot topic these days, due to the COP 26 Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Planet Earth is at a tipping point, beyond which things might become irreversible. According to some scientists, we have already gone past that point of no return. Whatever the truth might be, the sustainability of Earth’s ecosystem has become a major factor to consider for current technological developments, including non-fungible tokens (NFTs.)

The (non)sustainability of NFTs

In the world of 2021, the environmental impact of new technologies gets examined under the microscope. Anything seen as too ‘harmful’ gets a fair amount of headlines and even more column inches.

NFTs have been in the spotlight since the digital artist known as Beeple (real name Mike Winkelmann) sold his now infamous NFT ‘Everydays – The first 5,000 days‘ for a whopping $69m.

In the wake of the sale, which was done at world-renowned auction house Christie’s, everyone turned digital artist. Everyone wanted a slice of the NFT pie. And just like that, the NFT craze had begun. Soon after, the environmental issue came up. People started looking at things like energy consumption, carbon footprint, etc.

Calculating how much energy does the creation and production of an NFT consume is not easy. Take the NFTs that are produced on Ethereum for example. Miners would still be producing blocks and creating emissions, whether or not NFTs arere being created. But the truth is that proof-of-work networks (such as Ethereum and Bitcoin) do consume massive amounts of energy. Ethereum utilizes 48.14 kilowatt/hour of energy per transaction, for example. And the Ethereum network processes thousands of transactions per day. Yikes.

So what are the alternatives?

Ethereum has long planned to move from proof of work to the much more energy-friendly proof of stake, but this is yet to materialize. Until this happens, Ethereum will continue guzzling energy at an alarming rate.

There currently are private blockchains like Flow that are wholly dedicated to the creation of apps, crypto games, and digital collectibles. Flow uses a proof-of-stake consensus protocol, which means it’s far friendlier to the environment. Other notable blockchains, WAX and Solana, also use the energy-conscious proof-of-stake protocol. With WAX even being ‘certified carbon neutral‘.

Conclusion

While it is true that proof of stake consumes far less energy than proof of work, there is no hard data that calculates exactly the amount of energy that any of these blockchains consume, so we can only work with estimations and rough figures. Some say that the creation of NFTs does not add any extra emissions as the underlying network is continuously processing transactions anyway, and NFT minting is simply another transaction. Others proclaim that NFTs might bring about the collapse of energy grids worldwide. In December 2020 for example, digital artist Memo Akten analyzed 18,000 NFTs. He found that the average NFT has a carbon footprint of around 211 kg of CO2 equivalent, which is roughly the same footprint of a commercial flight from London to Rome.

There probably is no single solution to address the environmental impact that NFTs have, much like there is no ‘magic bullet’ to resolve the climate crisis worldwide. It would probably take a set of initiatives, standards, legal frameworks, and a commitment from NFT creators and developers to adhere to all that. A move to a more sustainable blockchain protocol like proof of stake, or any other ‘green’ protocol that might be developed in the future, would be a significant first step.

In the short term however, the discussions surrounding the environmental impact of these digital creations are likely to continue unabated.


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