NFTs and Climate Change

By Collin Murray

NFTs, or Non-fungible (non-interchangeable) Tokens, are digital assets or files that can be bought and sold online. They are generally associated with cryptocurrencies due to many similarities in both marketplaces as well as underlying software. NFTs are created (or “minted”) from digital objects that can take the form of virtually anything from a piece of art, to a song, to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first ever tweet (sold for $2.9 million last year). With the NFT market growing nearly tenfold in the past two years, we’re already seeing its detrimental effects on the environment. 

Recently, French Artist and climate activist Joanie Lemercier has done great things to raise awareness about and limit carbon emissions, such as vowing to decrease his personal energy consumption by 10 percent each year. This goal was met for many years, until all of his hard work was essentially erased in the span of less than a minute. The cause? Lemercier’s first NFT blockchain “drop.” This drop included the sale of six files that occur as short looped videos of spinning, metallic polyhedrons, mimicking the artist’s real-world installations. The tokens sold out in 10 seconds on an online platform known as Nifty Gateway, generating grand sums of money, and consuming 8.7 megawatt-hours of energy; enough to power Lemercier’s studio for two years.

At first glance, it is difficult to see how something as innocent as selling a video online could use up that much energy. However, the process, as it turns out, is much more complicated than it seems. The more popular NFT marketplaces deal through Ethereum, keeping a secure log of NFT and other cryptocurrency transactions through “mining”. This involves an extensive network of computers and high-level cryptography to determine a transaction’s validity. The whole process consumes exorbitant amounts of electricity, and on an energy grid that runs mostly on fossil fuels, that translates to extreme carbon emissions. 

Now, there are many more environmentally friendly options for NFT blockchain technologies currently in the works. This includes ideas such as adding another “layer” to the already existing blockchain, saving energy when transactions happen on this second layer, otherwise known as “off-chain.” Will any of these more eco-friendly options become mainstream? Only time will tell. But for now, the NFT market is projected a continued increase for the foreseeable future, so I sure hope we find one quickly.