The leading cryptocurrency bitcoin has seen a massive surge over the last few years. In more recent times, it has experienced huge jumps after dipping and remaining low for some periods as more institutional investors adopt it. Elon Musk’s Tesla is one of the big names driving the bullish moves.
However, as the price of the virtual currency soars, opponents have been quick to highlight the damage it does. This is a result of the amount of energy needed to “mine” it. According to these groups of people, the huge energy consumption that is involved damages both the environment and human health. There’s also research proving these points.
Bitcoin Mining and Energy Consumption
Bitcoin is a “proof-of-work” blockchain. In simple language, what this means is that the cryptocurrency is a “digital representation of the computer power needed to make one,” according to Peter Howson. The sort of proof here relates to showing that a certain degree of computational effort has been put in.
This process is not in any way efficient. It is also designed to use up a lot of resources – perhaps, to make the proof-of-work more worthwhile.
Howson likens the process to that of getting Rai stones, a form of ancient money in the Micronesian island of Yap. While that money lacks any inherent value, the process of getting it is highly demanding (and risky) – perhaps, that’s what made it valuable.
It was a lot easier to get a unit of bitcoin in the early days when the value was less than $1. Then, you could mine the cryptocurrency with a computer having standard specs.
However, the story has changed. Players in this space now rely on costly, power-hungry mining rigs called Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) machines. It is practically impossible to solve algorithms necessary to secure bitcoin using basic hardware anymore.
Energy costs make up the chunk of money that miners incur. Bitcoin ASIC machines use up a lot of energy because it is a lot harder to get the cryptocurrency than it was 10 years. Miners now have to solve harder algorithms because the bulk of the coins have already been produced and the supply is limited.
Going by the low-hanging fruit metaphor, it is not unusual for mining companies to opt for cheaper energy first. The cheapest sources are usually the ones that do the most damage to the environment and human health.
How Bitcoin Mining Affects the Environment
A couple of years ago, some researchers investigated how much electricity use is associated with four leading cryptocurrencies along with carbon emissions generated. They found that only the mining of bitcoin used more electricity than the entire countries of Ireland or Hong Kong in 2017.
An Entrepreneur article notes that bitcoin would be 29th in global rankings in terms of energy consumption if it were a country.
So how does this hurt the environment?
Experts say the burning of fossil fuels, which account for a significant proportion of global energy production, releases harmful chemicals and gases into the air.
These emissions, which play a leading role in air pollution, are made up mainly of carbon dioxide. Research by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that gas accounts for more than 80 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Carbon dioxide is generated by combusting fossil fuels.
Methane, a more powerful and destructive gas, contributes about 11 percent to emissions in the U.S.
Greenhouse gases play a role in cases of certain infectious diseases. They constitute a great threat to both the natural environment and human health.
Worsening climate change
These emissions are a major contributor to the worsening climate change situation in the world today. They play a leading role in global warming by keeping heat from escaping the earth’s atmosphere.
Warmer temperatures caused by greenhouse gases bring about a variety of undesirable effects, including extreme weather, rising sea levels, and more heat-related deaths.
A study by researchers at the University of New Mexico showed that every $1 worth of bitcoin produced in 2018 was associated with $0.49 and $0.37 in climate and health damages in the U.S. and China respectively.
Carbon dioxide emissions resulting from energy consumption were used for calculating climate damages in the research. Exposure to fine particles known as PM2.5, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide was used to assess health damages.
Climate change was responsible for roughly 89 percent of the crypto damages in China that were reported in the study. By comparison, around 60 percent of damages in the U.S. had to do with the climate.
Researchers observed that the net benefit of cryptocurrency mining has been falling in recent years. For each $1 of coins created in December 2018, associated damages were estimated at $0.95.
There is fear that low-lying countries could be overrun with water if climate change isn’t checked. This is as a result of rising sea levels.
Is Bitcoin Mining Really that Harmful to the Environment?
While the harmful effects of bitcoin mining might seem obvious to some people, others argue against it. Some enthusiasts of the cryptocurrency are talking about how it doesn’t really affect the environment, most likely to keep its price trending up.
The digital currency publication CoinDesk, for instance, dismisses the comparison of energy use in bitcoin mining to that of a country. These operations reportedly do not use more than 1.29% of total power consumption in any of the countries where they take place.
There is the claim that a significant proportion of energy used comes from renewable sources. A CCAF study reports that 39 percent of the energy used for mining came from such sources in 2019.
However, much of the bitcoin mining operations in China – where they take place on a large scale – depend on fossil fuels. Miners in the Asian country rely heavily on cheaper coal-powered electricity for their activities. An estimate has it that more than 60 percent of the operations are driven by fossil fuels.
In an attempt to save costs, bitcoin miners are often ready to move to anywhere they can get cheap energy, even if they are damaging to the environment. Coal mines in Australia that have seen fewer activities in years, for instance, are becoming more active again to power bitcoin mining.
Some supporters would also argue that operations are getting more efficient. ASIC machines are ideally replaced with newer, more efficient models as often as possible to use less energy. However, the outdated units are usually disposed of due to difficulty in recycling, thereby constituting a threat to the environment.
The purchase of $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin by Tesla played a key part in the cryptocurrency’s surge in price. Amid growing environmental concerns, the company’s CEO has now suspended its use for car purchases.
It’s even interesting that Tesla could consider investing in bitcoin at all. This is a company that wanted to make cars that are friendlier to the environment. The move probably shows clearly that the electric car maker was more interested in financial gains.
Ways Bitcoin Mining Can Harm Human Health
The operations of those mining these coins impact human health more by way of pollution. Let’s consider briefly a number of these pollutants and how they can be harmful to you.
We already stated how these gases trap heat in the atmosphere. This leads to a rise in the earth’s temperature levels while increasing the likelihood of heat-related fatalities occurring. Another effect of these emissions is a higher rate of certain infections, including Lyme disease.
Mold and pollen
Air pollution caused by fossil fuels not only plays a part in climate change but is also worsened by it. With climate change, there is a rise in the air of pollutants that lead to allergies. Increasingly damp conditions give rise to mold while a longer pollen season or higher production causes pollen to become more prevalent.
Mold can bring on an allergic response. It may cause or aggravate asthma attacks. In some cases, molds could also produce toxins that can have harmful effects when breathed in.
More pollen in the air also means increased cases of allergic reactions. In essence, more people can be expected to experience symptoms including runny nose, itchy eyes, and fevers.
This common type of air pollution results from fossil fuel combustion in power plants and engines. It forms when emissions react with ultraviolet radiation.
Smog can cause irritation of the eyes and throat. Just like pollen and mold, it can trigger an allergic response or asthma attacks. Another thing of concern is that it can hurt your lungs, especially if you spend a lot of time outdoors.
This pollutant is related to smog in that it also occurs due to fossil fuel combustion. The particulate matter comprises minute particles of dust, smoke, chemicals, or allergens. It comes as solids or gas.
Soot is especially hazardous to health due to how its minuscule particles can enter the bloodstream and the lungs. It can aggravate bronchitis and trigger heart attacks, which may result in death.
The foregoing pollutants aren’t the only dangerous ones associated with bitcoin mining’s energy use that can harm health. Others include mercury, which impacts the central nervous system, and lead that is capable of damaging the brain and kidneys.