Bitcoin Mining Could Be Responsible for Millions of Tons of Carbon Emissions in China

The processing needs behind efforts to mine Bitcoin could lead to more than a hundred million tons of carbon emissions in China by 2024, potentially jeopardizing the nation’s commitments to cutting back on its carbon footprint.

Bitcoin tokens are displayed in April 2013. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

(CN) — Despite its recent and almost unprecedented rise in popularity in recent years, mining for Bitcoin may come with a steep and unintended price tag: an upcoming spike in carbon emissions.

First made by an anonymous creator in 2008, Bitcoin has made a major splash in economies around the world. A digital currency capable of functioning without support from traditional banks or other institutions, Bitcoin has attracted a devoted following among those looking to carry out financial transactions without going through more traditional currency options like the American dollar or the British pound.

Unlike traditional forms of money, however, Bitcoin is not simply printed or created by a single source. Instead, Bitcoin is made through a process known as mining, in which users rely on powerful computer programs and encrypted computer networks to produce units of Bitcoin that can then be exchanged with other users.

While this process has come under no small degree of scrutiny for a number of reasons, such as its potential to be used for illegal services and its extremely volatile real-world value, it has also come under fire for the sizeable carbon footprint it leaves behind. Because Bitcoin relies on computer processing power that has to continually expand, the process of mining Bitcoin can cost a massive amount of electricity.

Now, researchers from China say they have taken a hard look into the energy drawbacks of mining Bitcoin, and their findings suggest Bitcoin’s impact on carbon emissions may be much more severe than many assumed.

According to the study published Tuesday in Nature Communications, researchers found that in China, where mining Bitcoin has found particularly strong footing, the energy output associated with mining is starting to take a toll on the nation’s energy grid and is accelerating at a troubling rate.

Using a series of data models, researchers were able to estimate that by 2024, Bitcoin mining will result in around 297 terawatt-hours and more than 130 million metric tons of carbon emissions being produced. These emissions eclipse the greenhouse gas emissions typically produced by entire counties, with the total emissions of nations like Italy or the Czech Republic being less than what Bitcoin mining creates completely by itself.

Experts warn that with China acting as one of the world’s largest players in the international energy circuit, this massive carbon price tag may fly directly in the face of China’s clean energy aspirations.

“As one of the largest energy consuming countries on the planet, China is a key signatory of the Paris Agreement,” according to the study. “However, without appropriate interventions and feasible policies, the intensive Bitcoin blockchain operation in China can quickly grow as a threat that could potentially undermine the emission reduction effort taken place in the country.”

Researchers say they used their data models to see what kind of actions policymakers could take to help combat this impending carbon crisis. What they found was that, unfortunately, most traditional means of reducing carbon usage are largely ineffective here.

The study reports that they specifically looked into carbon taxation, a popular strategy for many countries to cut back on their carbon footprint by making carbon production more expensive, but such measures are simply not applicable to the unique challenges brought on by Bitcoin mining.

Their models did find some success, however, with more direct approaches. Researchers say that new policies that directly regulate the individual sites where Bitcoin is mined may be able to successfully pump the breaks on Bitcoin’s race towards becoming such a major carbon emitter.

On top of giving lawmakers the information they need to help create effective solutions, researchers also hope that this information will force users and industry leaders around the world to fairly determine if this kind of double-edged tech is something worth relying on moving forward.

“While it is true the blockchain technology, and Bitcoin as one of its applications, is, and increasingly will play a significant role in the economy, ultimately, the choice of adopting and using this technology lies in the hands of humans,” the study states. “Consequently, we should carefully evaluate the trade-offs  before applying this promising technology to a variety of industries.”

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