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If we want to slow down climate change, we should change how we mine Bitcoin

By Luke Dormehl

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Bitcoin celebrates its 10th birthday today, which is a major milestone for a technology that some skeptical pundits predicted would never make it out of single digits. However, while there is plenty to love about the world’s most popular cryptocurrency, people have also raised concerns about what the heavy hardware requirements of Bitcoin mining mean for our planet. Bitcoin mining requires massive amounts of electricity, which means enormous amounts of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere as a result. In 2017 alone, the use of Bitcoin resulted in an estimated 69 million metric tons of CO2 emission.

But what does this mean in terms of climate change? Nothing good, unfortunately. According to a new study coming out of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, provided that Bitcoin continues its trajectory it could produce enough emissions to raise global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius as soon as 2033. This holds true if Bitcoin is adopted at even the lowest rate at which other technologies have been incorporated.

For their study, the researchers examined the power efficiency of application specific integrated circuits (ASICs), the computers currently in use for Bitcoin mining. They then factored in the locations where Bitcoin is likely computed and the corresponding CO2 emissions, based on the electricity production fuels in those countries. Needless to say, this is bad news — since increased climate change oft 2 degrees Celsius could push the planet’s temperature increase past the 1.5 Celsius threshold that could lead to catastrophic, irreversible changes on Earth.

“We are not aiming to predict the future of Bitcoin, but rather we hope that this research highlights the importance of considering the potential environmental impacts of emerging technologies in terms of CO2 emissions and climate change,” Katie Taladay, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “It is essential that emerging technologies like Bitcoin are developed and adopted with energy efficiency in mind.”

Randi Rollins, another researcher involved in the study, said that, while Bitcoin is an “innovative and interesting” technology, something will need to change with the way that coins are currently mined. “Bitcoin highlights a broader issue: Emerging technologies and industries need to take their potential footprint into consideration, and make smart decisions for development, being aware of the consequences of emission production,” Rollins said. “Green, sustainable energy would allow Bitcoin to continue, as is, without the repercussions we outline in our paper.”

Fortunately, it seems that there are a growing number of efforts to make Bitcoin mining more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Will this be enough to help slow the kind of climate change this study predicts? Provided these researchers are correct, we certainly hope so.

A paper describing this work was recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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