For a long time, cryptocurrencies have been at the core of many environmental concerns.
Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin require much energy to be mined or complete a transaction.
However, several crypto tokens were launched to address this issue, and even some existing crypto tokens changed their consensus mechanism to be more environment-friendly.
But Bitcoin is still the most popular crypto token, and many users are actively mining it.
So, what are the environmental impacts of cryptocurrency mining?
In this article, I am going to look at the environmental impacts that cryptocurrency mining causes:
What is Cryptocurrency Mining?
First, let’s understand what cryptocurrency mining is.
In layman’s language, crypto mining generates new coins and verifies new transactions on a blockchain.
It involves many decentralized computer networks worldwide to verify and secure blockchains.
Users solve a complex mathematical puzzle through crypto mining to verify a crypto transaction or generate a new crypto token.
However, on a vast, decentralized network of computers, multiple users are competing against each other to solve a puzzle.
The first one to solve the puzzle gets to add a new block of transactions to the ledger, and in return, they receive newly minted cryptocurrency.
As I have just mentioned, users are competing against each other to solve a problem.
Professional crypto miners use higher-end computers to generate enough power to become the first ones eligible to add a new block to the blockchain.
As a result, the higher-end computers they use, the more energy they consume.
What Are the Environmental Impacts of Cryptocurrency Mining?
The Energy Consumption of Cryptocurrency Mining
Cryptocurrency mining is an energy-hungry process.
First, solving the crypto puzzle to verify a transaction is super complex and requires extreme computational power.
As a result, numerous computers are working all around the globe 24/7 to generate new blocks for the blockchain.
Several reports compare the energy consumption data to a country’s energy consumption data per year.
One such report by the New York Times says that creating Bitcoin to spend or trade consumes around 91 terawatt-hours of electricity per year.
This is more energy consumed by Finland.
Thanks to this large energy consumption, Bitcoin mining plays a significant role in environmental footprint because of the carbon emissions associated with electricity generation.
To make things worse, most energy used in cryptocurrency mining comes from non-renewable sources such as coal and natural gas power plants.
These sources of electricity are known for their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
Also, it results in higher mining operations, especially in regions with cheap and abundant energy.
Furthermore, if we look at the larger impact of crypto mining, it heavily contributes to climate change because of greenhouse gas emissions.
To take things under control, we have seen reports of cryptocurrency mining firms being shut down due to protests in many regions.
Even international agreements have been made, and national policies have been formed to control carbon footprint. But still, there is a large demand for energy for crypto mining.
The most dangerous cryptocurrencies for the environment are the ones that use the proof-of-work model.
This model requires miners to use powerful computers to solve cryptographic puzzles, with the winner rewarded with new coins.
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Electronic Waste and Hardware Lifespan
Besides the huge energy consumption, electronic waste is another dark side of crypto mining affecting the environment.
When discussing crypto mining, we talk about computers and associated hardware.
And these computers are not the regular ones we see in our homes or offices.
However, these specialized machines for crypto mining can solve complex cryptography puzzles.
And the worst part of this hardware is that they don’t last long.
One reason behind the limited lifespan is that these hardware are made to work 24/7 and generate a lot of heat as they are in operation.
This eventually reduces the overall life.
Another factor is that crypto mining is a competitive space.
So, there is always new advanced hardware to make the process faster.
As a result, to be eligible for the crypto reward, crypto miners need to update their hardware every one or two years.
But what about the old hardware devices?
Well, they contribute to electronic waste.
Thousands of these specialized computers go out of work every year, increasing electronic waste.
Also, as these hardware are meant for mining crypto only, they cannot be reused in a different work environment.
Also, most of these hardware releases different pollutants and toxins that further harm the environment when they are disposed of properly.
And it’s hard to imagine that every region has a proper waste management system to address this issue.
So even though crypto mining doesn’t require digging the ground with extensive machinery, they still need specialized hardware to create a different kind of waste.
Even though the power consumption of crypto mining can be solved using renewable energy, the problem of electronic waste would remain.
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In cryptocurrency mining, water is another issue that needs to be addressed.
Several power plants consume large amounts of water.
According to a report by NRDC.org, a cryptocurrency mining firm in New York – the Greenidge plant removes around 139 million gallons of water daily from Seneca Lake to cool its machines.
Then it dumps its heated water up to 108 Fahrenheit into the same lake.
This activity puts the lake’s wildlife and ecology at risk.
Now, imagine the water wasted by several crypto-mining firms located all over the globe.
Land Degradation and Habitat Disruption
Land pollution is another area that is heavily damaged by crypto mining.
Although, in crypto mining, we are digging up the earth to mine anything.
However, crypto firms do require a significant amount of physical space for data centers.
These data centers can lead to land degradation as vegetation is cleared and the soil is compacted under the weight of heavy infrastructure.
Also, somewhere down the line, it impacts the wildlife too.
Establishing data centers will destroy the natural habitats of various species, reduce biodiversity, and even threaten endangered wildlife.
There is also the concern of noise pollution.
Crypto mining hardware generates a lot of heat, and to cool it down, crypto firm runners use cooling systems.
And these cooling systems create a lot of noise.
Although, compared to the other environmental impacts of crypto mining, noise pollution isn’t a huge issue.
Plus, most data centers are created far away from populations.
But still, it can disturb the local biodiversity.
Animals rely on the quiet of their natural habitat for survival, and noise can make the sounds of predators or prey interfere with their natural activities.
Even humans living around these crypto firms can face a lot of different issues, and it can impact their quality of life.
Humans can face issues like stress and sleep disturbance, which can lead to other serious health issues.
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Alternative Solutions for Cryptocurrency Mining
There is no denying that cryptocurrency mining has many downsides for the environment.
But how can it be made environment-friendly?
Well, here are a few solutions to look for:
- Renewable energy sources for cryptocurrency mining
First, crypto miners should use renewable energy sources for crypto mining.
Several mining operation firms have already switched to renewable energy sources.
Some even set up their bases in remote locations, where a renewable energy source is the only option.
These renewable energy sources include solar, nuclear, and wind power.
- Energy-efficient mining hardware
Crypto miners can also opt for energy-efficient mining hardware to reduce energy consumption further.
Tech manufacturers like Intel are developing more energy-efficient hardware.
These hardware devices can perform the same task for less energy than traditional mining equipment.
However, the problem of electronic waste will remain.
- Change in blockchain technology
Blockchain technology can also help in reducing the environmental impact of mining.
Older cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are using a proof-of-work consensus mechanism, which is not environmentally friendly.
However, several new types of consensus mechanisms are more environmentally friendly.
Some of them include PoA, PoET, and PoH.
Even blockchain developers themselves are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint.
One popular example would be Ethereum, which shifted its consensus mechanism from PoW to Proof of Stake or PoS.
This move allowed the Ethereum network to reduce its carbon footprint by over 99.988 %.
- Cloud Mining
Cloud mining is another factor that can solve the environmental issue of crypto mining.
There are many cloud-based mining services available online that are eco-friendly.
Using cloud mining, users can mine crypto without owning any hardware.
As a result, these servers will reduce energy consumption and the overall impact on the environment.
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Regulatory and Policy Frameworks
To make crypto mining more environmentally friendly, the government can take essential steps to encourage sustainable practices.
Some of these actions can be:
- Setting Standards
Governments can set environmental standards for crypto mining operations. For instance, a government can cap how much energy a crypto firm can use. Or how much electricity a crypto firm can use from non-renewable energy sources.
- Monitoring and Compliance
Monitoring these crypto firms is another essential step governments can take to ensure sustainable mining operations. Placing strong laws isn’t the only solution; ensuring the rules are followed is.
- Imposing penalties
Governments should also impose heavy penalties if a crypto miner fails to comply with the rules.
- Financial Incentives
Crypto mining firms can also help the government to increase its tax revenue. To do so, crypto companies can offer tax breaks, subsidies, or grants when they choose to mine crypto in an environmentally friendly way. This way, the governments earn tax revenue and don’t have to take extreme steps like shutting down a firm.
- Global Standards
Governments all around the globe can also collaborate and work on global standards of crypto mining that are suitable for both the crypto miners and the environment.
There is no denying that cryptocurrency mining causes a lot of environmental damage.
However, the damage can be controlled through government policies, changes in blockchain technology, and the use of renewable energy.
Also, this will help the crypto-mining industry flourish further.
And we are slowly going down that path.
As crypto exchanges, crypto miners, blockchain developers, and different government bodies are doing their bit to make a sustainable future for crypto mining.