why digital art has such a massive carbon footprint

How much would you be willing to pay for a one-of-a-kind work of art? For some collectors, the limit is somewhere in the region of the hundreds of millions of dollars. What about a work of art that has no tangible form and only exists as a digital token that is no more “real” than a JPEG file? Welcome to the strange world of crypto art collectibles, also known as NFT.

Like Bitcoin, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are cryptocurrencies. But while individual bitcoins all have the same value, NFTs are more like baseball cards. Each token has a different value and they cannot be used to buy things. They exist on your computer as digital representations of artwork, songs, movies, and games, among others.

NFTs have been around since 2017, when the first mainstream experiment in crypto collectibles emerged: CryptoKitties. The average price for one of these cat cards was around US $ 60 back then. But it is chicken feed compared to current recipes. The rights to a single digital image were recently auctioned off for US $ 69.3 million (£ 50.2 million). CryptoPunk 7804 (a crudely drawn alien with a pipe) sold for $ 7.5 million. A house on Mars was purchased for US $ 500,000. A digital home that isn’t digital you could live in. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently sold his very first tweet as NFT for just under $ 3 million.

NFTs are unique and collectable digital tokens.
Rokas Tenys / Shutterstock

“But how can someone buy a tweet?” You might ask. After all, everyone is free to click, view, print, and frame. the tweet as many times as they want.

When you buy an NFT, you are purchasing a unique certificate of ownership, which is locked onto an immutable distributed database known as a blockchain. The creator of the artwork usually retains the copyright and in most cases you have little more than bragging rights. Creators are also likely to pass the costs of creating your NFTs (or “printing” them) to you (around $ 100 as of this writing).

Most of the time, you will also be responsible for a huge carbon footprint.

Counting the carbon cost of TVNs

Because they depend on a blockchain, NFTs consume a lot of energy. Most creators still use Ethereum, a blockchain secured using a proof-of-work system similar to Bitcoin. It involves a power-intensive computer function called mining. Computers specializing in mining take turns guessing the combination of a digital lock (a long string of random numbers). The computer that correctly guesses the combination wins a reward paid in a cryptocurrency called Ether. The digital lock resets approximately every 15 seconds and the competition continues. Ethereum uses around 31 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity per year, about as much as Nigeria as a whole.

It is very difficult to calculate exactly how much responsibility the NFT industry should take for Ethereum’s carbon emissions. Ethereum was going to work with or without NFT. But with the growing demand for digital art, buyers and sellers of NFT are becoming responsible for a growing share of Ethereum’s total power consumption, and some artists are starting to think twice.

French digital artist Joanie Lemercier recently canceled the sale of six works after calculating the associated energy costs. The sale would use up enough electricity in just ten seconds to power the artist’s entire studio for two years.

ArtStation, a site for digital artists to showcase their portfolios, recently developed an NFT marketplace. But hours after announcing the planned launch to the world, widespread condemnation on social media forced ArtStation to abandon the project.

Alternative technologies exist that allow NFT markets without the carbon headache. Side chains use negligible amounts of energy to process NFTs, as these transactions occur on a more centralized platform where the costs (and carbon footprint) are much lower.

Damien Hirst is to publish an NFT collection called The Currency Project using the Palm sidechain. Hirst will still accept Bitcoin payments, so his NFTs might always come with a heavy carbon baggage.

Take an artistic license with climate solutions

NFT enthusiasts argue that the growing popularity of blockchain technology, along with its voracious appetite for energy, provides incentives to upgrade energy grids from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Similar arguments have been made by the airline industry: In order to fund efficiency innovations that could make aviation greener, people should fly more, not less. For TVNs, the evidence shows that this approach is unlikely to work. Due to the competitive nature of proof-of-work mining, booming NFT markets are encouraging the construction of reliable coal-fired power plants, so that crypto miners do not have to suffer from intermittent access to money. renewable energy production.

Smoke rises from a coal-fired power station behind the city skyline.
Coal-fired power is a reliable source of electricity, which makes it ideal for mining cryptocurrency.
UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

Some NFT creators are trying to have their crypto cake and eat it using carbon offsets. The purchase of offsets finances conservation work, with each carbon credit purchased equivalent to a tonne of carbon saved, which is either stored in a tree or theoretically prevented from escaping into the atmosphere thanks to some kind of industrial innovation. . Offsetra provides an emissions calculator and sells carbon credits to offset emissions caused by NFT transactions. The NFT Marketplace Nifty Gateway recently auctioned eight net carbon negative NFTs “inspired by the Earth and the climate crisis”. The works received 60 carbon credits. Each offset was itself an NFT.

NFT carbon credits (or any carbon credit for that matter) depend on smart accounting and the belief that carbon, like NFTs on a blockchain, can be steadfastly locked in trees forever. It can’t. Nifty’s website explains that offsets make sense to neutralize our inevitable emissions, “after we take all possible steps” to reduce our carbon footprint.

But is acquiring the bragging rights of a digital image that anyone with an Internet connection can enjoy an essential part of their carbon footprint?

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