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5 questions about the environmental impact of crypto-mining

Originally published on Thomson Reuters Insights by Gina Jurva, with Joseph Raczynski. 

Is the act of mining for cryptocurrency damaging to the environment? We asked our resident technologist to assess this emerging landscape 

Two hot words in the corporate and financial worlds today seem to be cryptocurrencies and ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance issues) — yet, are the two intertwined? More specifically, are cryptocurrencies environmentally friendly or are they a global threat to meeting climate targets as articulated at the recent United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26)? 

We spoke to Joseph Raczynski, Thomson Reuters’ resident Technologist & Futurist and early adopter of cryptocurrency, about crypto-mining, the cost to the environment, and its sustainability going forward. 

Thomson Reuters Institute: In its most basic terms, what is crypto-mining? 

Joseph Raczynski: The traditional act of mining cryptocurrency is driven by heavy computer processing power as processors race to solve a mathematical problem first, so that the sole winner can add a grouping of transactions to the blockchain. For example, a transaction could be one person sending another person money via Bitcoin. 

Computer processing power — which you can tangibly feel as your machine gets warm — means the processor is working very hard to do something. The act of mining financially rewards the first computer, or grouping of pooled computers, that solve the mathematical puzzle with that cryptocurrency’s native token. In the Bitcoin example, more than 100,000 nodes (computer groupings) all over the world are competing to win the race, and if they do, they earn 6.25 Bitcoin (valued today around $237,500) for the ability to add the grouping of transactions to the next block on the chain. This happens roughly every 10 minutes. 

Joseph Raczynski of Thomson Reuters 

Baked into the code is a reduction of the reward over time, and there is a fixed supply of Bitcoin that will ever exist, so the mining becomes likely more difficult over time depending on how many computers are competing at any given moment. This process is called proof of work and is heavily energy intensive; while another form of mining consensus is proof of stake and is far more efficient. 

Thomson Reuters Institute: How much does cryptocurrency cost the environment? 

Joseph Raczynski: This is a very nuanced and politically divisive topic. Having been in this space since 2011, I can see both sides of the debate, and I believe I can distill its reality. Proof of work is natively inefficient, as it uses lots of electricity to solve that mathematical problem to win the reward. On its face value, this is not environmentally sound. 

However, crypto-miners intrinsic interest lies in being as electrically efficient as possible because energy consumption is their principal expense after the hardware investment of fast computers and processors, which are also called mining rigs. Miners seek out the cheapest places in the world to plug their rigs into the electrical grid. They pursue renewables — solar, wind, and hydro power — and have used the blow-off captured from natural gas, which would have been lost or burned as waste. 

Although the quest for clean energy is increasingly being sought, not all crypto-miners are doing this. There is little question that proof of work is a cost for the environment, but it is not as catastrophic as some suggest. An intangible effect, of course, is aligning that energy consumption and environmental impact with the benefit that cryptocurrency has created via a vast new industry. The technology has created an internet of value that we will all leverage, so there is a cost benefit that is being struck as well. 

Thomson Reuters Institute: Could the impact of crypto-miners be reduced in some way? 

Joseph Raczynski: Another fascinating argument about the environmental impact is that crypto-miners are essentially the new intermediary. Be it banking, legal, insurance, supply chain, or most other transactional businesses, each of these enterprises could be replaced with a blockchain. As a result, all of the physical and environmental impacts of those institutions could be negated with a move to blockchain. Think of the electricity used to build and run office buildings, the workers who travel, gas and oil used, materials needed, and all other combinations of energy and environmental impact that any such institution has on the environment — that would be reduced with the underlining technology that would serve its purpose. Ultimately, proof of stake solves this environmental issue, but proof of work is something that will persist, in a decreasing form. 

Thomson Reuters Institute: One cryptocurrency, Ethereum, said it wants to reduce its energy use almost 100% this year through transitioning to a proof of stake process. How can cryptocurrencies use proof of stake to be more sustainable? 

Joseph Raczynski: There is great news afoot that pretty much solves the electricity issue, and in turn, the environmental problem. The primary blockchains, Ethereum, Solana, Avalanche, Cosmos, along with many others and which are the future of the industry, rely on proof of stake, which itself relies on a different mechanism to confirm and add transactions to the digital ledger. There are many flavors of proof of stake, but if someone wishes to participate as a crypto-miner in this instance, they are not using processing power to win a mathematical race. Instead, each person puts up money, or a stake, to participate. These users are hoping to earn anywhere from 7% to 1,000% on the money that they stake, by locking it into a smart contract that reinforces the resiliency of the network. The incentive is that the more money that people stake, the greater the network effect and security. 

Currently, the potential of these high interest rates at are driving tens of billions of dollars into staking. Of those participating, the code dictates who actually gets to save the latest batches of transactions to the blockchain. There is a disincentive if you are a bad actor and try to upend or alter a block, by saving information to the ledger, for example. If you attempt to disrupt the network, you get slashed which means your stake could be confiscated. Proof of stake is expected to reduce the electrical consumption of crypto-mining by well over 99%. Ethereum should be upgraded to this version in 2022, and that alone will reduce the environmental impact. 

Thomson Reuters Institute: Does mining and transacting with cryptocurrencies actually contribute to climate change? 

Joseph Raczynski: If proof of work continued with Ethereum, which is the most-utilized blockchain in the world, then yes, crypto-mining could have had a negative impact on climate change over time. However, the upgrade to Ethereum 2.0 (ETH2), on a proof of stake model will dramatically change this.

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