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ENVIRONMENT

Mining bitcoin uses more energy than Denmark: study

Extracting a dollar's worth of cryptocurrency such as bitcoin from the deep Web consumes three times more energy than digging up a dollar's worth of gold, researchers said Monday.

Mining bitcoin uses more energy than Denmark: study
Photo: AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File/Ritzau Scanpix

There are now hundreds of virtual currencies and an unknown number of server farms around the world running around the clock to unearth them, more than half of them in China, according to a recent report from the University of Cambridge.

Mining virtual currencies with a real-world value, in other words, carries a hidden environmental cost that is rarely measured or taken into account.

“We now have an entirely new industry that is consuming more energy per year than many countries,” said Max Krause, a researcher at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education and lead author of a study in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“In 2018, bitcoin is on track to consume more energy than Denmark,” he told AFP.

Denmark consumed 31.4 billion kilowatt hours in electricity in 2015. As of July 1st of this year, Bitcoin mining used up approximately 30.1 billion kilowatt hours, according to the study.

The highly competitive practice of mining cryptocurrencies requires hundreds, even tens of thousands, of linked computers running intensive calculations in search of the Internet equivalent of precious metals.

New coins are awarded to those who complete calculations first, with the transaction confirmed and entered into the currency's shared public ledger, known as the “blockchain”.

The top 100 cryptocurrencies have a current market value of about $200 billion (175 billion euros), according to the website coinmarketcap.com.

Bitcoin accounts for more than half of that amount.

“We wanted to spread awareness about the potential environmental costs for mining cryptocurrencies,” Krause said.

“Just because you are creating a digital product, that doesn't mean it does not consume a large amount of energy to make it.”

The movies, music and videos that billions of people stream every day all have measurable environmental costs, earlier research has shown.

For the study, Krause and Thabet Tolaymat, an environmental engineer based in the United States, calculated the average energy consumed to create one US dollar's worth of four top virtual currencies — bitcoin, ethereum, litecoin and monero — over the 30-month period up to June 2018.

That amount was 17, 7, 7 and 14 million joules, or megajoules (MJ), respectively.

A joule is a unit of energy equivalent to the work required to produce one watt of power for one second.

That is up to three times the energy needed to excavate gold, platinum or copper, they found. Of the metals examined, only aluminium — at 122 MJ per dollar's worth — was more energy intensive.

A complete calculation of the environmental cost of virtual currencies would take into account the banks of computers used to mine them.

“The computers are made with gold and other precious metals,” said Krause.

“They are run aggressively, which means the hardware is destroyed much quicker than you or I would expect for regular use — maybe a year instead of five or ten.”

READ ALSO: Denmark set wind power record in 2017: ministry

ENVIRONMENT

‘We still have a chance’: Danish minister’s relief after Glasgow climate deal

Denmark's climate minister Dan Jørgensen has expressed relief that a meaningful climate change deal was struck in Glasgow last night, after a last minute move by India and China nearly knocked it off course.

'We still have a chance': Danish minister's relief after Glasgow climate deal
Denmark's climate minister Dan Jørgensen speaks at the announcement of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance in Glasgow on Tuesday. Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

“For the first time ever, coal and fossil fuel subsidies have been mentioned. I’m very, very happy about that,” he told Denmark’s Politiken newspaper. “But I am also very disappointed that the stronger formulations were removed at the last minute.” 

Late on Saturday, the world’s countries agreed the Glasgow Climate Pact, after negotiations dragged on while governments haggled over phasing out coal. 

Denmark is one of the countries leading the phase out of fossil fuels, formally launching the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) with ten other countries and states at the Glasgow summit on Tuesday, announcing an end to oil exploration last December, and committing to phase out coal by 2030 back in 2017. 

Jørgensen conceded that the deal struck on Saturday was nowhere near far-reaching enough to keep global temperature rises below 1.5C, which scientists have estimated is critical to limiting the impacts of climate change, but he said the decision to hold another summit in Egypt next year meant that this goal could still be reached. 

“The big, good news is that we could have closed the door today. If we had followed the rules, we would only have had to update the climate plans in 2025, and the updates would only apply from 2030,” he said, adding that this would be too late. “Now we can fight on as early as next year. This is very rare under the auspices of the UN.” 

Limiting temperature rises to 1.5C was still possible, he said. 

“We have a chance. The framework is in place to make the right decisions. There was a risk that that framework would not be there.” 

Jørgensen said that he had come close to tears when India launched a last-minute bid to water down the language when it came to coal, putting the entire deal at risk. 

“It was all really about to fall to the ground,” he said. “The assessment was that either the Indians got that concession or there was no agreement.” 

Sebastian Mernild, a climate researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, said he was disappointed by the lack of binding targets and global deadlines in the plan, but said it was nonetheless “a step in the right direction”, particularly the requirement that signatories to the Paris Agreement must tighten their 2030 emissions reduction targets by the end of 2022.

“It’s good that this thing with fossil fuels has got in,” he added. “It’s a pity that you don’t have to phase them out, but only reduce.”

He said the test of whether the Glasgow meeting is a success or failure would not come until the various aspects of the plan are approved and implemented by members states.

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