Bitcoin mining is more damaging than beef production and almost as environmentally unsustainable as crude oil, according to research. The digital currency is causing more damage to the climate over time, scientists at the University of New Mexico warn in an analysis published in Scientific Reports.
The study suggests that bitcoin, as opposed to being “digital gold,” is much more energy-intensive, and is impacting the environment similarly to beef, natural gas, and crude oil.
Study co-author Professor Benjamin Jones, of the University of New Mexico, said: “Globally, the mining, or production, of bitcoin is using tremendous amounts of electricity, mostly from fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas. This is causing huge amounts of air pollution and carbon emissions, which are negatively impacting our global climate and our health.
“We find several instances between 2016 and 2021 where bitcoin is more damaging to the climate than a single bitcoin is actually worth. Put differently, bitcoin mining, in some instances, creates climate damages in excess of a coin’s value. This is extremely troubling from a sustainability perspective.”
The research team examined how bitcoin damages the environment, according to three sustainability criteria: whether the estimated climate damage is increasing over time, whether the climate damages of bitcoin exceeds market price, and how the climate damage as a share of market price compares to other industries and products.
Their results show that CO2-like emissions from bitcoin mining have increased 126 times from 0.9 tonnes per coin in 2016 to 113 tonnes per coin in 2021.
The climate damage hit its peak in May 2020, according to the report, as 156 percent of the coin price caused environmental harm, making its climate damages more than the coins’ actual value.
Each U.S. dollar of bitcoin market value generated led to $1.56 in global climate damages that month, according to the findings.
Climate damage for electricity produced by natural gas averaged 46 percent and for gasoline produced from crude oil, it was 41 percent.
However, bitcoin’s environmental damage exceeds beef production, where climate damages make up 33 percent of the market value.
Study co-author Professor Robert Berrens, also of the University of New Mexico, added: “Across the class of digitally scarce goods, our focus is on those cryptocurrencies that rely on proof-of-work production techniques, which can be highly energy intensive.
“Within broader efforts to mitigate climate change, the policy challenge is creating governance mechanisms for an emergent, decentralized industry, which includes energy-intensive proof-of-work cryptocurrencies.”
Jones added: “We find no evidence that bitcoin mining is becoming more sustainable over time.”