Can Blockchains Go Green? And are Clean NFTs The Next Big Thing?

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In Brief
  • Memo Akten calculated the minting of an Ethereum-based NFT uses over 142 kWh of energy

  • Artist Nancy Baker Cahill refuses to mint works on PoW blockchains

  • Julian Oliver created an artwork and a piece of engineering that used wind energy to mine crypto

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It’s a great conundrum: can you be an artist and an environmentalist – and mint NFT art on a blockchain? 

For many artists who want to create environmental art, there is a paradox in that its creation comes at a massive environmental cost.

London-based artist and creative technologist  Memo Akten calculated the minting of an Ethereum-based non-fungible token (NFT) piece of art uses over 142 kWh of energy, generating 83kg of CO2

Add to that the energy used in creating the original artwork, bidding, sale, and transfer of ownership and you’re looking at a total energy draw of more than 340kWh, or 211kg of CO2.

In comparison, sending an email produces a few grams of CO2. Watching an hour of Netflix produces only 36 grams.

The NFT market recorded nearly $25bn in sales last year

The explosion in NFT art shows no sign of abating, with household names like Snoop Dogg, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Aoki getting a piece of the digital action.

The market recorded nearly $25bn in sales last year, up from a mere $94m the previous year. 

Mining’s massive energy consumption stems from the proof-of-work consensus algorithm of the blockchain on which NFTs are created. 

Miners are the users who verify and confirm said transactions, working to secure and expand the blockchain. All good in theory, but in practice, massive amounts of power is needed to encrypt and validate the transactions. 

So how do artists move forward? One way is to use proof of stake (PoS), which some altcoins have been using for some time now.

Here, the system selects one person to solve the block puzzle at random, dispensing with the need for competition and the energy that it uses.

Ethereum is moving towards a PoS consensus mechanism that should take effect later this year. The result would be an estimated 99 percent reduction in energy consumption.

Artist Nancy Baker Cahill refuses to mint works on PoW blockchains, relying instead on greener alternatives like Tezos.

Julian Oliver combines NFT art and engineering

In 2017, artist and engineer Julian Oliver created Harvest, an artwork and a piece of engineering that used wind energy to mine crypto. 

Adapting a small wind turbine with environmental sensors, a weatherproof computer, and a 4G uplink, the machine uses wind energy to mine cryptocurrency. All proceeds went towards climate change research.

Sven Eberwein shows how NFTs can be used to offset carbon emissions.

Sven Eberwein’s M Carbon Dioxide produced in 2020 used NFTs to show how carbon markets could be incorporated onto blockchains.

The image shows Earth peppered with black dots that slowly dissipate. The dots represent the 1,000 tons of CO2 purchases and retired as verified credits on the Verra registry.

The offsets in M Carbon Dioxide were purchased directly from two projects: Cerro de Hula Wind Project in Honduras and Bull Run Forest Carbon Project in Belize. 

In the corner of the work are two QR codes that link to Verra Registry. They show the proof of ownership of the carbon retired from both organizations in the name of M Carbon Dioxide

This produces a bridge from the real world to the blockchain. It was a proof of concept although not yet scalable.

Digital artists are actively exploring new ways of addressing the current flaws in blockchain technology. Only trial and error can effect change.

Got something to say about NFT art or anything else? Write to us or join the discussion in our Telegram channel.

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Geraint Price is a journalist with over 20 years’ experience in news and features for newspapers, magazines and online in the UK and Singapore. He's a relatively new but enthusiastic convert to crypto and hopes to share this with readers.

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