NFT developers say cryptocurrencies must tackle their carbon emissions

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have risen in popularity in recent weeks in an effort to sell artwork using blockchains, the technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Now, two of the developers behind the NFTs at the root of the existing digital art boom have warned that they are damaging to the surroundings and that a change in direction is necessary.

An NFT is a cryptographic claim of ownership, like the deed to a residence, that is encoded right into a blockchain, and therefore it can’t be altered.

William Entriken, one of the authors of the NFT protocol for Ethereum, a favorite alternative to bitcoin, says NFTs aren’t inherently bad, but that rapacious speculation is pushing them and cryptocurrencies down a destructive path as their carbon footprints rise.

Most cryptocurrencies rely on “proof work” to secure their networks, and therefore computers must perform huge numbers of calculations to “mine” new currency and verify transactions on the blockchain. This uses huge amounts of electricity – bitcoin’s annual power consumption is comparable to that of Finland.

Investing money into cryptocurrencies – either through simple speculation or by purchasing expensive artwork – boosts demand and for that reason prices, says Entriken. Which makes mining that cryptocurrency more profitable, but also more difficult, increasing carbon emissions.

Entriken contrasts cryptocurrencies with carbon offsetting, where persons pay to have carbon emissions taken off the atmosphere. “Bitcoin may be the opposite of that. When you get bitcoin you’re purchasing carbon creation credits,” says Entriken. “When you get the $50,000 [of bitcoin] somebody else is directly putting that much carbon into the atmosphere. Ethereum may be the same.”

He has needed Ethereum to switch from a proof work (PoW) method of a proof stake (PoS) approach, which would take away the need for powerful calculations by allowing the owners of existing coins to regulate the network, instead of the owners of the computing power. It really is estimated this could slice the total energy demands of Ethereum by 99 per cent. “You should switch to proof of stake. Proof work ought to be illegal,” says Entriken.

Read more: NFTs seem to be both a capitalist stunt and an excellent tool for digital art

Ethereum developers have already been attempting to make the switch for quite a while, but no person or organisation manages the open source project, meaning progress has been sporadic, says Entriken. “It’s always been three months away. These things don’t just happen immediately.”

“The carbon footprint of proof of work blockchains deserves all of the criticism it gets and more,” says Dieter Shirley, who also done the Ethereum NFT protocol. “But NFTs aren’t the problem here. Now that we’ve electric cars, we are able to say that cars aren’t the problem, gasoline may be the problem. Same with proof stake: now that we’ve PoS blockchains, we are able to say that NFTs aren’t the problem, PoW chains are.”

Increasing knowing of the carbon cost of NFTs has inspired some artists to look elsewhere. French artist Joanie Lemercier began selling NFT artwork on Ethereum instead of the emissions involved with shipping physical artwork, but soon stopped. “I was looking for something better, and I thought NFTs would be it,” he says. “But it’s 10 to a hundred times worse, so that it makes no sense.”

He says that websites selling NFTs need to take the initiative and switch to technologies that have already adopted proof of stake. “The platforms ought to be held accountable and responsible plus they should address the problem, because they are able to,” says Lemercier.

Lemercier has been exploring alternatives and happens to be selling pieces via a blockchain network called Tezos, which operates on proof of stake. “It works absolutely great. There’s no reason to stay on Ethereum. The a lot of money is going to come where in fact the artists are,” he says.

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