On May 12th the charismatic South-African billionaire Elon Musk announced through a tweet that his company Tesla would no longer be accepting Bitcoin as a form of purchase. Citing concerns about the “rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal” as the motivation behind the decision.
The debate on just how taxing cryptocurrency is on the environment has coincidentally been re-ignited. But to fully appreciate the effects Bitcoin has on the planet, we must first understand how it is sourced. Similar to how currencies such as gold and silver were retrieved Bitcoin is mined, but not in the traditional sense with a shovel and pick-axe. Bitcoin mining involves firstly verifying 1MB (megabyte) worth of bitcoin transactions called a block to ensure no double-spending has occurred, and secondly, the miner must come up with a 64-digit hexadecimal number (called a hash) that is less than or equal to a target hash. Only once these 2 conditions are met the miner is rewarded for their efforts with Bitcoin, resulting in more currency being released into circulation. Previously a Bitcoin miner could use an average computer, but currently, more complex and energy-intensive computers are required because 18.5 million Bitcoins have been mined rendering the math problems much more convoluted. According to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index (CBECI) the energy required to power these computers is equal to that of a small country. To put that in perspective, Bitcoin mining uses an estimated 127.48 TWh (Terawatt hours per year) which is more than the entire nation of Ukraine. Currently, most mining occurs where energy is the cheapest in China, which is powered largely by coal hence the concern relating to the emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. All this information is useless without taking into consideration all the benefits that Bitcoin provides. Amongst many other applications, cryptocurrency has proven to be useful for migrant workers sending funds to family members in poor or developing countries. Instead of sending back fiat money that is subjected to exchange rates and high-commission prices, Bitcoin circumvents all of that, offering the most bang for your buck. We as a society accept environmental harm for the benefits provided by many other enterprises such as fashion, the meat industry, and transportation to name a few. The environmental harm caused by Bitcoin mining cannot be ignored but does not stand for a reason to deem the cryptocurrency unusable. As renewable energy sources become cheaper and more accessible the environmental footprint will undoubtedly shrink, thus providing more incentive to weigh the pros and the cons. It would be a shame to squander all the possibilities that cryptocurrency has to offer.