Many Experts Critical of Latest Study Concerning Bitcoin Energy Use

A new article published in the journal Nature Climate Change predicts that bitcoin will produce enough CO2 emissions to raise global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius within three decades. A number of experts in the field have come out against such conclusions and are critical of the study.

This study and others, which deal with energy usage, are largely of the mining involved with bitcoin. The proof-of-work protocol which bitcoin uses protects the network from attack and verifies transaction through a distributed set of computers competing to solve complex mathematical equations. This does involve energy consumption. According to the study’s press release, in 2017, the use of bitcoin emitted 69 million metric tons of CO2.

“We cannot predict the future of Bitcoin, but if implemented at a rate even close to the slowest pace at which other technologies have been incorporated, it will spell very bad news for climate change and the people and species impacted by it,” said Camilo Mora, lead author of the study in the press release.

Critics were quick to rebut and ThinkProgress interviewed three leading experts on technology (IT) energy use:

Dr. Jon Koomey explained “one thing we should NOT do is recklessly extrapolate recent growth rates for Bitcoin into the future, as the Nature Climate Change article published today [Monday] appears to do…I cannot emphasize enough how dangerous, irresponsible, and misleading such extrapolations can be…and no credible analyst should ever extrapolate in this manner, nor should readers of reports on this topic fall for this well-known mistake.” According to Dr. Koomy, the most credible calculation for the current energy consumption by bitcoin is 0.1 percent of total global electricity.

Mechanical engineering professor Eric Masanet told ThinkProgress “we can debunk their analysis pretty handily by pointing to three egregious flaws…We know that the global power sector is decarbonizing and that IT (including cryptocurrency data mining) are becoming much more energy efficient. It appears that the authors have overlooked these two latter trends in their projections.” The third flaw as seen by Masanet is, “simultaneously insisting on tremendous growth in cryptocurrency adoption, resulting in inflated and dubious estimates of future carbon emissions.”

Arman Shehabi, a Lawrence Berkeley National Lab research scientist, adds, “The authors appear to have focused their analysis on a very unlikely scenario: one where the electricity demand of [individual] Bitcoin transactions and the carbon emissions from that electricity demand both remain static over the next hundred years, while at the same time Bitcoin immediately undergoes rapid adoption. Unfortunately, the article’s attention on the results from this unlikely scenario obscures just how unlikely they are.”

Essentially, too much falls to assumptions and a failure to account for continued technological improvements surrounding energy consumption. Though “environmental impact” may not be the main motivator, market competition drives innovation to do more with less. Energy is a limited resource with costs and entrepreneurs yesterday, today, and in the future will continue to adopt more energy efficient practices and technology, or else go out of business. This study, unfortunately, fails to account for many of these mitigating factors.