The NFT craze infuriates me, even though it's great to empower artists,and support a vital part of society through a devastating pandemic. The cost of this support is far greater. NFTs have a catastrophic impact on the environment, the true scale of which we can't even begin to understand.
I am not an IT-mad person by any stretch of the imagination. I am, however, very interested in art. NFTs got me very interested from an art perspective at first. Having dug the rabbit hole of NFTs, I was shocked to find out the environmental impact of these modern seemingly good platforms, and you will be too. You don’t have to be a tech person to understand the severe extent of the harm that NFT’s are causing.
Before I go any further: artists are at no fault here. The ones that manage to sell their artwork are benefiting from NFTs financially. For the past year, the arts industry has suffered incredibly. I encourage supporting artists by all means. I am opposed to harming the planet in the process.
How Do Popular Cryptocurrencies Work, and Why Are They Harmful?
The cryptocurrency on which most NFT sales are based is called Ethereum. The price of Ethereum is linked to how much supply/demand there is. When a currency grows, there is a lot of demand, leading to a sudden increase in transactions. Physical energy must be used to complete every transaction. The more popular a currency is (increased demand), the more energy is used in processing transactions. This is called Proof of Work. In order to do any transaction with Ethereum, the system must show that it has done work. The higher the value of each transaction, the more work has to be done. The more people hop on the hype train, the more popular the currency. The more popular, the higher the number of transactions. The higher the number of transactions, the more energy is used. This is a never-ending loop.
An average Ethereum transaction takes up 35 kWh of energy. To put that into perspective, that’s how much an EU citizen consumes in 4 days. This is unbelievably high already. But it gets higher, depressingly higher.
What Are NFTs?
The idea behind NFTs is to create a unique token that cannot be exchanged, divided, or changed in any way, hence the non-fungibility of the token. Therefore, an NFT is a collectible item, like a collectible dollar that’s been issued once, sort of like buying an expensive painting. It holds value as an item. You can’t pay with a piece of painting for ice cream. An NFT is a digital version of this.
The Energy Consumption of NFTs Is Catastrophic
The trick with NFTs is that they are unique. The more artists mint NFTs (create digital assets for their artworks), the more transactions happen. Moreover, every bid, canceled bid, purchase, etc. is also a transaction. This suggests that an NFT is very transaction-heavy. And because of the nature of an NFT transaction, it takes much more energy compared to a regular cryptocurrency transaction. In numbers: 82 kWh, with 48 kg of CO2 emitted. That’s more than 2.3 times higher than a normal transaction.
You already know that an NFT transaction takes up a lot of energy. But an NFT sale from start to finish can be hundreds of transactions. It is estimated that an average NFT takes up 340 kWh of energy and emits 211 kg of CO2. This compares to flying for two hours or driving for 620 miles. Worst, most NFTs will never be sold, causing artists to lose money while also harming the planet irreversibly.
What About Artists?
A few anonymous case studies will come in handy.
Say an artist sold around a small number of artworks, with each having a few hundred editions, totaling 800. Over a course of 3 months, these sales totaled 138,272 kWh of energy and 85 tons of CO2. This is comparable to flying for 825 hours and consuming electricity for 40 years.
Another artist is more popular. They have made more artwork and sold around 1,500 editions. During that time, they have used 263,538 kWh and emitted 163 tons of CO2 as result. This compares to the total energy consumption of an EU citizen for 77 years and flying for 1,500 hours. If you fancy boiling a kettle, you’d have to boil it 3.5 million times.
You can interpret these values however you wish. But energy consumption of NFTs is unbelievably high, unnecessarily high.
What About the Platforms?
Open Sea, one of the most popular platforms for digital art, underwent (as of 2021 March 31) 869,077 transactions, resulting in 67,824,222 kg of CO2 emitted. Another popular platform, Nifty Gateway, underwent 130,904 transactions, resulting in 15,382,066 kg of CO2. The nine most popular NFT platforms have undergone 1,606,435 transactions in total. This emitted 115,811,072 kg of CO2. That’s 115,811 tons. You would have to fly for 146 years nonstop to emit that amount. An EU citizen would have to use electricity for 83,266 years to emit that amount.
Can Something Be Done?
The short answer is yes, there are ways to do NFT’s without harming the environment on such a biblical scale.
The solution that has been in development for the past seven years is Ethereum 2.0. It uses a different method that is called Proof of Stake. The mining capability of a new block is not linked to energy, but to the amount of currency already present. Current news suggests ETH 2.0 being released to the general public in the next few years. Hopefully, the sense of urgency that is created by the sudden jump in NFT popularity will speed up the rollout of ETH 2.0. However, once launched, ETH 2.0 will only enable faster greener transactions. A better solution than ETH 2.0 is also in development.
That solution is Efinity. A recently introduced NFT chain (part of the futuristic Polkadot network) is created with the goal of minting NFTs at heart. Efinity claims to be cheaper for creators and a lot cleaner for the environment. For the end-users, Efinity will allow fast (no more than six seconds) transactions, and what is even more exciting, no need for a blockchain wallet. This improves accessibility for all users and allows for NFTs to grow even more while being sustainable. This growth will be encouraged by how easy it will be to use Efinity for a new user. The general idea of the NFT is great; however, the execution is terrible. Efinity aims to solve that.
The CEO of Enjin (the company developing Efinity) claims:
NFTs should be for everyone. Building with Polkadot will enable us to deliver an accessible, scalable solution that empowers everyone to participate in the emerging NFT economy. With the end-user in mind, Efinity will provide a fun, simple, and accessible experience for all.
For now, NFT’s are truly deadly for the planet. Until ETH 2.0 launches or even better, Efinity, I discourage NFT transactions. There are greener ways of supporting artists, such as donations or auctions.
Please, do not harass artists using NFT platforms. Instead, share this article in order to raise awareness of the pressing issue. I don't condone anyone who used the information in here to attack an artist.
What are your thoughts on this? Should NFTs be protested against in spite of what they offer artists? Should we boycott NFTs? Let me know in the comments; I always read them.