As the Bitcoin network grows, so too does the concern around its environmental impact, and with good reason. Bitcoin consumes more electricity than the entire island of Ireland, and that power consumption is set to steadily rise in the coming years. Beyond the electricity required to run the network, there are the materials required to make ASIC miners and GPUs as well as air conditioning, etc.
So what does this mean for planet Earth? Is Bitcoin a godsend or an environmental disaster?
The person with all the answers is Hass McCook, a civil engineer as well as a Bitcoin researcher and advocate who has done the deepest investigation into Bitcoin’s energy requirements that’s ever been carried out. His recent 39-page report which was continued from his 2014 research which revealed the following findings:
McCook spoke to CCN about the environmental impact of Bitcoin and the future of money.
What led you to become interested in the environmental impact of Bitcoin? Would you describe yourself as an environmentalist?
What got me interested in my original career in Civil Engineering, was that I naively believed that physical infrastructure was the key to delivering economic justice and empowerment to the “bottom of the pyramid”.
From basic water and sanitary needs, all the way to highways, airports, and railroads – the Civil Engineer contributes towards keeping us civilized and surviving. But infrastructure comes at an environmental cost. Of which I know quite well through professional experience and study. Now for the part about Bitcoin! I believe that it is the only form of infrastructure, physical or digital, that matters in the fight for global economic freedom and fairness.
You’re one of the few Bitcoin maximalists who openly acknowledges that while fiat is very harmful to the environment, Bitcoin is problematic as well, and your investigation into Bitcoin’s energy use is the most comprehensive one there is. In your opinion, is there room for both fiat and Bitcoin in the future, or does something have to give?
In my opinion regarding room for two, in the short term, i.e., the next 10 to 15 years, yes. In the long term, 25 to 50 years, no. The market will decide either way – but I’d say that there would only be room for Bitcoin around the end of this century.
How would you describe the results of your findings briefly to our readers?
To dangerously explain by analogy – I’ll express things in infrastructure asset analogy. It was the lens I first took when trying to understand Bitcoin as a beginner. To analyse the impact of a highway for example, we first must understand the design, construction and operation of the highway. In Bitcoin’s case, you need to understand Bitcoin mining economics, and the construction and operation of all of the ASIC units that power The Blockchain. From there, it’s simple to get the numbers on costs and impacts.
The summary is that Bitcoin mining uses a LOT of energy (power). That said, its environmental impact is 100% attached to the “green performance” (or lack thereof) of the global energy grid. If the global grid isn’t almost emission-free by 2050, the renewable energy industry should be ashamed at the lack of their market success. But if the grid is emissions-free, Bitcoin will have insignificant environmental impact.
I also compared Bitcoin and Gold Mining’s environmental impacts – and the results were ugly for Gold. After seeing the data, no true environmentalist should be happy to support the jewellery industry any longer. Over 40% of the overall damage done by gold is done for gold jewellery alone. This is also all before we get into the impact of mining other precious metals.
What measures can and should be put in place to lower the negative impact of Bitcoin in terms of energy consumption?
Placing measures on Bitcoin is like trying to herd cats. Things will flow naturally based on market incentives and the rules of the game. The energy consumption issue will never be solved, nor do we want it to be, as Proof of Work and the monetization of Energy is fundamental to Bitcoin. The problem is emissions and environmental impacts of the power plants that power the manufacture and operation of the mining hardware.
What are your thoughts on proof of stake alternatives?
For me, “If it’s not Proof of Work, it isn’t money.” I do envisage many good uses for proof of stake in the form of 2nd layer solutions or utility tokens though.
What does Bitcoin and Bitcoin maximalism mean to you?
Everything. Enough meaning to do dozens and dozens of stories. I believe that physical civil (roads, rail, sanitation, fibre and communications networks, etc.) and digital (Internet, Bitcoin) infrastructure are the only things that will stop the rot of inequality – which is predominantly a side-effect of the root-cause problem; the “printing” of money.
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