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Is the mainstream explosion of NFTs damaging the climate?

The explosion of NFTs has brought about a whole new strata of digital art and crypto trading, but is the medium’s popularity leaving a damaging stain on the environment?

There’s nothing like a random surge of blockchain news to leave people thinking, ‘What on Earth is going on here?’ and matters are becoming more convoluted by the week.

Welcome to the confusing world of NFTs, or ‘Non-Fungible Tokens’ – meaning a one-of-a-kind item that can’t be replaced by a variation of something else. While an exchange of two bitcoin currencies would represent a fungible transaction, the trade of say a rare Pokémon card for an original vinyl is a non-fungible deal.

Got the basics down yet? Good.

In the world of art (where the model is proving most lucrative) NFT sales can cover any manner of digital asset. Whether we’re talking original works, social media stickers, videos, gifs, or even Jack Dorsey’s first ever tweet, buyers and sellers are jumping on the trend in absolute droves.

Art aficionados in particular are paying crazy prices for NFTs as proof of authentic ownership over items that are saved and screenshotted by people every day. Got to respect the flex.

Propelled to the forefront of mainstream culture seemingly overnight, the burgeoning trend is causing a fair bit of controversy between traditional artists, who feel NFTs are needlessly superfluous, and aspiring artists relishing the chance to finally get their work into the world or earn a buck.

While that debate is very much open to interpretation, there is valid concern of a different variety involving NFTs, and whether or not they’re becoming a detriment to our climate targets.

An energy hungry process

Frankly speaking, you wouldn’t believe the energy required to gain ownership of a simple JPEG file.

Like cryptocurrency systems, NFT marketplaces are able to run through what is known as a blockchain system.

This serves as a public ledger of data which can grow almost indefinitely. In some cases with NFTs, the seller can make their work available to multiple buyers, meaning a whole host of purchases will be recorded in a large data chain with each being verified through intricate computer applications.

It all sounds mighty impressive – and in a sense it is – but the high powered computers used to solve thousands of processes at once require an astounding amount of energy to run. There is no third party involved to oversee transactions.

Studies from Cambridge University found that blockchain technologies accounted for the consumption of more energy than the whole of Argentina in a year, with bitcoin emissions reportedly on track to equal the total of London today.

One of the most used types of cryptocurrency, Ethereum – which oversees most NFT processes today – is said to use as much electricity as the entire country of Libya. Concerning, eh?

While there is no straightforward remedy for the sale of NFTs, more decentralised methods are being worked on with the climate in mind. Thankfully, the prospect of artists shunning the system en masse has heaped pressure on blockchain figureheads to adapt.

Offsetting isn’t enough

Having just sold an NFT for his original piece worth a cool $69 million, digital artist Mike Winkelmann is now plotting to go carbon neutral (or negative) with his future works.

This means he’ll offset the emissions from his NFT sales by investing in renewable energy and conservation projects – a feat that costs $5,000 for a single one of his current collections. As you’d expect, this ‘solution’ hasn’t exactly gone unchallenged.

Pushing the same business model this month, a new marketplace for digital artists called ArtStation was forced to rapidly cancel its launch following immense backlash. Artists on social media went as far to describe the platform’s offset plan NFTs as a ‘scam’ and something like an ‘ecological nightmare pyramid scheme’.

Companies are looking at a more decentralised blockchain network that may not require such hefty energy use dubbed as ‘second layer’. Within this framework, transactions between the seller and buyer take place separate from the computer’s ‘proof of ownership’ process. Once money exchanges accounts, the net result can then be transferred onto the blockchain in a single go, saving a ton of processing power.

Of course the most direct solution would be to utilise clean energy for NFT transfers and cryptocurrency apps in general, though that is far easier said than done. Some experts argue that while the process is so energy intensive, making such a shift would siphon too much clean energy away from more urgent matters – like heating and lighting homes.

So there we have it. As of this moment there aren’t many clean resolutions, though the potential of NFTs for both tech and art will ensure that we maintain our search.

As such, we’re sure to see more positive stories coming out in the months ahead. For now though, you may not be able to purchase Logan Paul’s $17,000 trap card and feel entirely guilt free.