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NFTs: The carbon footprint and how bad they are for the environment

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I recently held a Q&A poll on my Instagram story asking people their opinions on art NFTs. No joke, 80% of responses (there were around 120) mentioned the negative effect NFTs have on the environment. So clearly, among creatives (my Instagram demographic is 18-30, 60% female, 6% non-binary, 34% male) the carbon footprint of NFTs is a real concern. However, amongst my Twitter following and feed (where I am the most active when it comes to Web3) the general consensus among fellow artists is that NFT should be celebrated as a way for us to reap financial gains and are constantly being touted as the new frontier of digital art.

What makes it all the more difficult is that it’s tricky to estimate the carbon footprint of an NFT because many steps in the process do not have a known carbon footprint, and there are few scientific peer-reviewed studies on this topic. Digiconomist estimates a single Ethereum transaction’s carbon footprint at 33.4kg CO2, while artist and programmer Memo Akten estimates that an average transaction specifically for NFTs has a carbon footprint of about 48kg CO2. Bear in mind that each time an NFT is minted or sold, that’s another transaction. These estimates tell us that one NFT transaction is likely to have a carbon footprint more than 14 times that of mailing an art print, which Quartz estimates at 2.3kg CO2. Despite uncertainties in the calculations, this is enough for one to judge whether a carbon footprint of this scale is acceptable for the act of selling art.

Choosing to not participate in NFTs is a lifestyle choice at the end of the day. Similarly to cutting out meat or not having a car. The estimated carbon footprint of beef is about ten times that of chicken; a smaller difference than that between an Ethereum transaction and mailing an art print. So, according to this example, it could be argued that if you think switching from beef to chicken is a worthy sacrifice given the emissions reductions it would achieve, you would feel the same way about avoiding NFTs and sticking to art prints.

Of course, and this is a topic I speak almost every time I have one too many drinks, why should it be us – the struggling artists – who have to make a huge difference and miss out on getting funding when  71% of the world’s emissions are attributed to just 100 companies? Yes, you read that right. Of course, the public holds great power in its purchasing choices but what climate action truly requires is a massive effort from governments and corporations which isn’t being made.

I think it should be stressed that whatever your decision, guilt and shame should not be attached to it. If you really need funding and web3 is one of your only revenue options, that’s okay. Many still choose to take planes because there are no trains in their area, or eat beef because they need a special diet. Then again, they could change their mind when a new railway is built, or when beef gets too expensive. So, whether you think NFTs are worth the environmental impact depends on where you choose to draw the line, and what options are available to you. So, what are the options?

Furthermore, within the NFT world there are many alternatives that are developing. Blockchains like Ethereum and Bitcoin run using a system called Proof-of-Work (PoW), which is the main reason behind their high energy intensity. One alternative is to use a blockchain running with a different system, such as Proof-of-Stake (PoS). PoS blockchains like Tezos, Symbol or Polygon (all three support NFTs) do not rely on massive computing power, and thus consume much less electricity. According to Tezos, the estimated annual energy consumption of its blockchain is 0.00006Twh, compared to 33.57Twh for Ethereum.

Ethereum itself says it is transitioning to a PoS system, and its website is calling for new “stakers,” who will be responsible for securing the Ethereum PoS network and processing its transactions. An Ethereum researcher has stated that he is confident the new PoS Ethereum network, known as Ethereum 2.0, will go live sometime in 2022.

Like most things with a carbon footprint, it’s a personal choice that should be weighed up at the end of it all. 

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