What We're Reading: Another Look at the Impact of NFTs on Climate Change

By David Schonauer   Wednesday May 5, 2021

NFTs are a menace to the environment.

But how, exactly?

NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, as you may have heard, are the new hugest thing in the art world. As we noted in March, a montage of art that had been turned into an NFT by the digital artist known as Beeple sold for more than $69 million at a Christie’s online auction. Since then, the NFT market has been booming — scarcely a day goes by without a news story about how artists (and others) have been turning things into NFTs and selling them. Bloomberg recently reported on collectors intents on becoming “the Guggenheims” of NFTs.

If you’re not quite sure what they are or how they work, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The New York Times recently described them, succinctly, as pieces of artwork stamped with a unique string of code and stored on a virtual ledger called a blockchain. “The term ‘NFT’ is often used as a shorthand for a certain kind of blockchain-linked artwork, but it really refers to the digital certificate of authenticity to which these artworks are attached,” noted Bloomberg, adding that an NFT “can be created for anything, whether a century-old painting or a tweet, attesting to the blockchain’s guarantee that it’s the original, no matter how many free JPEG replicas you can dig up on Google Images.”

But as NFTs have exploded, many artists have been looking hard at a troubling consequence connected with them: Blockchain technology, which also forms the basis of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, comes with enormous greenhouse-gas emissions, noted The Times.

“In a nutshell, when an artist uploads a piece of art and clicks a button to ‘mint’ it, she or he starts a process known as mining, which involves complex puzzles, awesome computing power and a huge load of energy. That’s because Ethereum, the platform of choice for NFTs, uses a method called proof of work to create digital assets like nonfungible tokens,” added The Times.

To successfully add an asset to the blockchain’s master ledger, miners must compete to solve a cryptographic puzzle, “their computers rapidly generating numbers in a frenzied race of trial and error. As of mid-April, miners were making more than 170 quintillion attempts a second to produce new blocks, according to the trading platform,” noted the Times. (A quintillion is 1 followed by 18 zeros.)

Chis Precht, an Austrian architect and artist known for his work on ecological architecture, had planned to create and sell NFTs until he researched the environmental impact that would have. “The numbers are just crushing,” he told The Times. Precht has calculated that creating the 300 items of digital art that he had planned to sell —100 each of three art pieces — would have burned through the same amount of electricity that an average European would otherwise use in two decades.

Meanwhile, Art News talked with Joanie Lemercier, a French artist and climate activist who also grew disturbed after researching NFTs. So far, noted Art News recently, determining the environmental impact of NFTs is a DIY affair. “There are conceptual questions to answer: Is the footprint associated with minting, bidding on, transferring, and selling an NFT like getting in your car and driving 50 miles, thus producing 50 miles’ worth of emissions? Or is it more like getting on a subway or a plane, which are going to get where they’re going whether or not you step on, and create pollution regardless?” added AN, noting that “NFTs most likely do not have a direct, causal relationship with CO2 emissions, because they are just making use of the underlying blockchain that Ethereum is already running.”
At top: Joanie Lemercier's "Polyblock - Platonic solids" NFT on Nifty Gateway


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