NFTs Are Making a Bold Footprint

Zephyr Lipman-Wulf, Writer

An NFT is a non-fungible token. This means that it basically only exists online unless printed. Each NFT artwork has an individual string of code that has been engraved in it. This code is used to store the digital pieces in a web library called a blockchain, a type of technology that creates the base for many cryptocurrencies like online investments and banking. This is what backs the foundation of the NFT, making its business explode by raising the selling price of digital pieces to insane amounts. While we love to watch these prices fluctuate and, on occasion, see pieces sell, this comes with the price of extreme greenhouse gas emissions. 

The NFT itself has a platform of choice called Ethereum. They use this platform to perform a method called proof of work. This creates the non-fungible tokens, which are the digital assets. Ethereum is an open-source blockchain that is equipped with smart contract functionality programming and restrictions. It is a big host to digital money and payments made globally. After Bitcoin, Ethereum is the second largest cryptocurrency and most used blockchain system in the world. It is surprising that Ethereum has not yet surpassed Bitcoin, as it is currently the most commonly used blockchain system. You also have to take into consideration that Bitcoin has a 6 year release date advantage, giving it more time for people to adapt to. 

  In order to add a piece or asset to the blockchain’s overall system, artists must go through an extensive online process. When an artist attempts to upload their artwork to the blockchain, they begin an operation called mining. These “miners” must complete a cryptographic puzzle that their computer generates at an incredible speed. It is a race between trial and error among other miners. The artist that first arrives at the correct answer is the winner, adding their asset or assets to the blockchain. The system-generated puzzle is designed to be extensive and ongoing as well as being purposely competitive and not cheater-friendly. 

NFTs have been the topic of many controversial arguments based on smaller, unknown artists who could finally be put in the spotlight. By entering the blockchain system, artists then have the ability to gain recognition and acknowledgment for their work.

The use of blockchain technology is responsible for a big portion of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, when artists complete the blockchain puzzles, crazy fast computing power is used in a matter of seconds. Many of the large-scale digital artworks we’ve been subjected to need very large amounts of computing energy. This means that the demand for the electricity is at an all time high, creating and emitting greenhouse gasses more than ever. Unless the energy used is carbon-free, it leads to even bigger gas emissions. 

Adding one single NFT into the blockchain system emits, on average, about 200 kilograms of carbon. These 200 kilograms of carbon are equal to an American gasoline-powered car driving 500 miles. This number is a product of an independent research estimate. At Cambridge University, researchers have estimated that “mining Bitcoin uses more electricity than entire countries like Argentina, Sweden or Pakistan.” The sudden act of pushing a few buttons burns through so much energy, making it very difficult to find alternative ways to generate energy. 

We expect to see the interest in blockchain mining become more popular in the coming years, consuming more and more energy. Over time, the blockchain mining system will just become less and less energy efficient. There have been other instances of the art world impacting climate change through the sponsorship of lucrative oil companies, which have allowed many art museums to flourish. 

While the use of blockchain technology and NFTs are resulting in extreme environmental consequences, there isn’t anything we can do about it currently. Climate activism is stronger than ever right now and is campaigning to move away from coal as a power source. We just have to wait until someone decides to make a change and do a better job at protecting our Earth. If we do not find an alternative energy source, we could begin to see these activities become more limited. We would also experience our planet’s atmospheric degradation in a harsher way.