NFTs Are Causing a Global Ecological Disaster, I'm Not Exaggerating.

NFTs Are Causing a Global Ecological Disaster, I'm Not Exaggerating.

The NFT craze infuriates me, even though it's great to empower artists,and support a vital part of society through a devastating pandemic. The cost of this support is far greater. NFTs have a catastrophic impact on the environment, the true scale of which we can't even begin to understand. 

I am not an IT-mad person by any stretch of the imagination. I am, however, very interested in art. NFTs got me very interested from an art perspective at first. Having dug the rabbit hole of NFTs, I was shocked to find out the environmental impact of these modern seemingly good platforms, and you will be too. You don’t have to be a tech person to understand the severe extent of the harm that NFT’s are causing. 

Before I go any further: artists are at no fault here. The ones that manage to sell their artwork are benefiting from NFTs financially. For the past year, the arts industry has suffered incredibly. I encourage supporting artists by all means. I am opposed to harming the planet in the process. 

How Do Popular Cryptocurrencies Work, and Why Are They Harmful?

The cryptocurrency on which most NFT sales are based is called Ethereum. The price of Ethereum is linked to how much supply/demand there is. When a currency grows, there is a lot of demand, leading to a sudden increase in transactions. Physical energy must be used to complete every transaction. The more popular a currency is (increased demand), the more energy is used in processing transactions. This is called Proof of Work. In order to do any transaction with Ethereum, the system must show that it has done work. The higher the value of each transaction, the more work has to be done. The more people hop on the hype train, the more popular the currency. The more popular, the higher the number of transactions. The higher the number of transactions, the more energy is used. This is a never-ending loop.

An average Ethereum transaction takes up 35 kWh of energy. To put that into perspective, that’s how much an EU citizen consumes in 4 days. This is unbelievably high already. But it gets higher, depressingly higher. 

What Are NFTs?

The idea behind NFTs is to create a unique token that cannot be exchanged, divided, or changed in any way, hence the non-fungibility of the token. Therefore, an NFT is a collectible item, like a collectible dollar that’s been issued once, sort of like buying an expensive painting. It holds value as an item. You can’t pay with a piece of painting for ice cream. An NFT is a digital version of this. 

The Energy Consumption of NFTs Is Catastrophic

The trick with NFTs is that they are unique. The more artists mint NFTs (create digital assets for their artworks), the more transactions happen. Moreover, every bid, canceled bid, purchase, etc. is also a transaction. This suggests that an NFT is very transaction-heavy. And because of the nature of an NFT transaction, it takes much more energy compared to a regular cryptocurrency transaction. In numbers: 82 kWh, with 48 kg of CO2 emitted. That’s more than 2.3 times higher than a normal transaction.

You already know that an NFT transaction takes up a lot of energy. But an NFT sale from start to finish can be hundreds of transactions. It is estimated that an average NFT takes up 340 kWh of energy and emits 211 kg of CO2. This compares to flying for two hours or driving for 620 miles. Worst, most NFTs will never be sold, causing artists to lose money while also harming the planet irreversibly. 

What About Artists?

A few anonymous case studies will come in handy. 

Say an artist sold around a small number of artworks, with each having a few hundred editions, totaling 800. Over a course of 3 months, these sales totaled 138,272 kWh of energy and 85 tons of CO2. This is comparable to flying for 825 hours and consuming electricity for 40 years. 

Another artist is more popular. They have made more artwork and sold around 1,500 editions. During that time, they have used 263,538 kWh and emitted 163 tons of CO2 as result. This compares to the total energy consumption of an EU citizen for 77 years and flying for 1,500 hours. If you fancy boiling a kettle, you’d have to boil it 3.5 million times. 

You can interpret these values however you wish. But energy consumption of NFTs is unbelievably high, unnecessarily high. 

What About the Platforms? 

Open Sea, one of the most popular platforms for digital art, underwent (as of 2021 March 31) 869,077 transactions, resulting in 67,824,222 kg of CO2 emitted. Another popular platform, Nifty Gateway, underwent 130,904 transactions, resulting in 15,382,066 kg of CO2. The nine most popular NFT platforms have undergone 1,606,435 transactions in total. This emitted 115,811,072 kg of CO2. That’s 115,811 tons. You would have to fly for 146 years nonstop to emit that amount. An EU citizen would have to use electricity for 83,266 years to emit that amount. 

Can Something Be Done?

The short answer is yes, there are ways to do NFT’s without harming the environment on such a biblical scale. 

The solution that has been in development for the past seven years is Ethereum 2.0. It uses a different method that is called Proof of Stake. The mining capability of a new block is not linked to energy, but to the amount of currency already present. Current news suggests ETH 2.0 being released to the general public in the next few years. Hopefully, the sense of urgency that is created by the sudden jump in NFT popularity will speed up the rollout of ETH 2.0. However, once launched, ETH 2.0 will only enable faster greener transactions. A better solution than ETH 2.0 is also in development. 

That solution is Efinity. A recently introduced NFT chain (part of the futuristic Polkadot network) is created with the goal of minting NFTs at heart. Efinity claims to be cheaper for creators and a lot cleaner for the environment. For the end-users, Efinity will allow fast (no more than six seconds) transactions, and what is even more exciting, no need for a blockchain wallet. This improves accessibility for all users and allows for NFTs to grow even more while being sustainable. This growth will be encouraged by how easy it will be to use Efinity for a new user.  The general idea of the NFT is great; however, the execution is terrible. Efinity aims to solve that.

The CEO of Enjin (the company developing Efinity) claims: 

NFTs should be for everyone. Building with Polkadot will enable us to deliver an accessible, scalable solution that empowers everyone to participate in the emerging NFT economy. With the end-user in mind, Efinity will provide a fun, simple, and accessible experience for all.

Closing Thoughts

For now, NFT’s are truly deadly for the planet. Until ETH 2.0 launches or even better, Efinity, I discourage NFT transactions. There are greener ways of supporting artists, such as donations or auctions. 

Please, do not harass artists using NFT platforms. Instead, share this article in order to raise awareness of the pressing issue. I don't condone anyone who used the information in here to attack an artist. 

What are your thoughts on this? Should NFTs be protested against in spite of what they offer artists? Should we boycott NFTs? Let me know in the comments; I always read them.

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132 Comments

Previous comments
Illya Ovchar's picture

I think the ownership of crypto is real, as many people do own crypto. The fee for sending crypto is how service providers get profit.
One benefit of owning crypto is the anonymous nature of it. Many people find it useful because of that. There is a bad side to it, unfortunately.

Brian Bennett's picture

Why is digital money useful? You have any idea how costly and inefficient it is to move physical money around?

Matt Williams's picture

lol, it costs an insane amount of money to move crypto around. Not just for the user, where you pay insane fees to send or buy crypto, but also because of.... the topic of this article. The massive amount of energy used for each transaction, which FAR outweighs the energy use of physical money. FAR.

So that argument holds not a drop of water.

Brian Bennett's picture

Lmfao @ counterfeit NFTs. All you need to do to prove something is counterfeit is determine that the original is older than the counterfeit. This is also how a blockchain works. Using a blockchain is how you know if an NFT is fake or original.

Matt Williams's picture

And if you've already bought it?

You think everyone getting into NFTs knows how to do that?

Grant Schwingle's picture

NFT's are not a scam. The idea that anyone can go in and sell something for free with little to no exposure with their art is the scam. We see Gif's go up and sell for millions and think we should be able to go on and sell photos for the same as they potentially have more artistic value than a cat GIF. However, this is not the case. I think more than anything it's growth has outpaced it's regulation and understanding (this is in general - applicable to crypto).

Face value - NFT's are a great idea bringing income directly to artists and ensuring if their artwork sells down the road for massive amounts - that they are actually going to be able to get a 'piece of that action.' I think it makes way more sense than an artist selling a piece of art to a collector - the collector holding that art for years in private and then selling it later for a much higher value that the original artist will never see. In a way the NFT - ideally speaking - democratizes art.

As for what can and can't be an NFT - since the blockchain isn't managed by a single entity - it would be very hard for someone to regulate for instance me throwing up an NFT of a jpg of the Mona Lisa. However the sites that make these NFTs available to sell can control this and in that sense - it's their responsibility to authenticate a real user and their original artwork.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Completely agree.

Matt Williams's picture

Why? He's pretty much entirely wrong. See my response below.

Genuinely wondering how y'all can look at something that is clearly a ponzi scheme and say it benefits artists (it absolutely DOES NOT) or that it's good, instead of a get-rich-quick scheme developed by hucksters.

Matt Williams's picture

Yeah, no. They are 100% a scam. There's no logical debate about that. They are.

NFTs are people selling vaporware. They're selling a digital copy of something, under the guise that the buyer now "owns" it - though the NFT can still be duplicated by anyone, seen by anyone, etc. There is no tangible asset.

That might be different if there were actually legalities involved that said "ok you bought this, you now own it" - like selling a copyright of something. Except, NFTs do no such thing. The idea that you actually own it is just... not supported by anything other than people saying that you do. You have no physical property, which is fine - people sell non-physical items all the time that they own, but there's also nothing to govern or oversee or legislate any of this.

So the idea that someone would get "a piece of that action" if something sells down the road is not founded on anything. Nothing, *absolutely nothing*, would guarantee them a piece of that action.

And yes, NFT fraud (or "counterfeiting") is very common and users have no way to know if what they're buying is legitimate or not.

The problem here is that NFTs are an entire market that has built - and sustains itself - on the perception of legitimacy. There's nothing actually supporting the market. The same is true of cryptocurrency. They're both just fake. Their value exists because people say it does. This isn't actually unlike fiat currency (which is what we have in the USA), however the difference is that fiat currency is backed by an entire government and financial/banking industry. And even fiat currency is at risk of losing its backing and devaluing, but that would require the country/banking system to essentially fail (which has happened many times in other countries, often when governments are overthrown or other political crises).

Cryptocurrency is what it was, I don't care about it. I don't think its sustainable whatsoever but people can do what they want.

NFTs on the other hand are legitimate scams, usually perpetrated on people who think its safe simply because a lot of people are doing it.

Alex Kasper's picture

Just because you dont understand how something works doesnt make it a scam.

Matt Williams's picture

Explain where I'm wrong then

jim hughes's picture

Libertarianism - the driver behind cryptocurrency - is a dead end, and always has been.

Grant Schwingle's picture

People's desire to own and manage their own finances, lives, art, etc will never die.

T Van's picture

The problem with Libertarian-ism is their unwillingness to contribute to the societies to which they live and work. They assume no responsibility to the maintenance costs required to keep the fabric of civilization functioning.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I'd suggest discussing political ideologies someplace else.

T Van's picture

Time for me to leave the digital realm and do physical work that has actual value to someone. Unlike my time here....I will return to the Matrix tomorrow.

Grant Schwingle's picture

Thanks for letting us know. V important read this comment.

Timothy Roper's picture

Cloud storage used by you and F-Stoppers is doing the same thing.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Not sure what you mean, could you elaborate?

Timothy Roper's picture

There have been many, many studies and stories over the years on the carbon footprint of cloud computing and storage. And just like with cryptocurrencies and the blockchains that hold them, different ones have different carbon footprints. But here's one to get you started: https://www.computerworld.com/article/3431148/why-data-centres-are-the-n...

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thank you for bringing this up. The IT sector, in general, is very emission-heavy. The reason I wrote about NFTs is that they are causing unnecessary emissions. I'll be probably writing up a second article on how to support artists without buying NFTs.

Timothy Roper's picture

I'm no expert on all this, but I do know there are some crypto currencies, like Solar Coin, that have much less of a carbon impact. Also, some NFT platforms don't mint an NFT until a work is sold, alleviating one problem you mention above. Pair those two things on a platform, and an NFT could be much cleaner. And while the big players aren't doing this right now, it's still the Wild West out there, and there's nothing stopping someone from giving it a try. Maybe you could be that someone, with backing from F-Stoppers. The F-Stoppers Photo NFT Platform.

Piero Desopo's picture

It's indeed something utterly wrong, but I don't see how artists are not to be held responsible as well. They know and their response is always Proof of Stake is coming.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Unfortunately, the topic of the environmental costs of NFTs is not as wildly popular as NFTs themselves. Moreover, cryptocurrencies are something new, and many artists often don't know what they're getting themselves into. I don't hold artists accountable in any way if they didn't know the information I present. I didn't know it either before I wrote the article.

Piero Desopo's picture

Illya, I can assure you they know. I work in the same industry (3d, design, animation), and I follow forums, YouTube channels, twitter...this issue is now widely known to the vast majority though the answers are always the same: "ETH is changing", "old people don't accept what is new", and so on.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

What does this have to do with photography?

Illya Ovchar's picture

Many photographers are interested in NFT's. Photographers are often digital artists, and I know quite a few who sold NFT's. I wrote this article to highlight that the environmental cost of an NFT overshadows the monetary benefits by quite a lot.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

Eh. You just said that you can have any article on here that has nothing to do with photography because many photographers are interested in it. I am not going to let my professional association have a "photography event" just because some of our members happen to like photography.

Illya Ovchar's picture

There are many photographers, big-name photographers, and other artists too, that mint NFTs. Just check https://foundation.app for the number of photographers on there.

Jared Wolfe's picture

There are sooooo many flaws in this article. Starting with your statement that a transaction takes 35kwh per transaction. That is actually an estimate of energy consumption for a block - not a transaction. Each block can have 70 or more transactions in it. So you are overestimating the problem by around 70x

NFTs may be transaction heavy, but that does not increase energy consumption. Block time is 10-20 seconds regardless of the number of transactions on the network. So the additional transactions from NFTs on the network simply increase congestion, meaning it increases the time it takes for transactions to confirm and tends to increase the amount of gas that needs to be paid. None of this inherently increases energy consumption. Although higher gas prices and mining rewards can attract more miners to come online and increase energy consumption.

Lastly the whole energy consumption model you that you cite has numerous assumptions which are highly flawed as well because it ties energy consumption to the dollar value of the mining reward. A year ago Ethereum was ~200. Now it is ~2000. So the model assumes 10x as much energy consumed on the Ethereum network simply because mining rewards increased by 10 times. The fact that rewards increase with a higher gas rate further exacerbates the errors in this model. In reality the network hashrate - which is a better indicator of energy consumption - has gone up 2.5x since last year - not 10x.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thank you for your comment, Jared. I based my statistics on the sources I've used, they cite 35 kWh per transaction on ETH, and 82 kWh for an NFT transaction. Statistics is a very controversial branch of maths, and data manipulation is incredibly easy. The research that I based my article on came from a respectable source, and was written in an academic manner. Therefore, I accepted the values as true. Again, I haven't spent my life doing cryptocurrencies, and there is a lot I don't know about them(quite more than I know). I appreciate you taking the time to highlight the potential flaws. Thank you!

Owen Jacobs's picture

"Please, do not harass artists using NFT platforms." Harass no, but all involved in this Ponzi scheme (?) are to blame, including the artists, by creating a market out of nothing. The energy cost for NFTs is completely unnecessary, and is based on bad design of the e-currencies involved.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I think that most artists are unsure of what NFTs are, and go for the gold rush not knowing that this is a pyramid scheme. The energy cost of NFT's is just a small part of what crypto does(Proof of work). I personally don't invest in that crypto for the same environmental reasons.

Grant Schwingle's picture

People keep saying NFTs are a ponzi scheme. I think it just sounds good because it makes absolutely 0 sense.

jgabby FR's picture

Why people that knows nothing about blockchain use the same shit figures and articles as a start, wrong figures, miscalculations, translate and used in all languages... Ignored renewable energy, the impact of mobile networks or datacenters google, netflix facebook...
When I read "I truly hope that the proof of stake currencies will be used for NFT's as soon as possible" you show your ignorance about others blockchains. Flow, wax, bsc, avalanche, hbar and so much more... It is like I say there is one camera brand on earth and I hope they go digital soon because roll film chemistry is a big issue for earth.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I'm sure that there are alternative sources to my findings. The impact of the IT sector is huge. I found the impact of NFTs particularly horrible and not talked about enough. Hence, the article. Feel free to link to alternative sources. I'd hate to mislead someone.
Proof of work is much more energy-consuming than proof of stake. Therefore, for environmental reasons proof of stake is better, in my opinion.

Eric Breverman's picture

The world produces ~51 billion tons of CO2e per year. This post mentioned 116,000 tons, but not sure on timeframe...let's assume it's a years worth. That is 0.00023% of the worlds CO2e footprint.

Not too say the energy used for NFT should be ignored, but maybe we should focus our climate concerns elsewhere. Just want everyone to use our limited energy as constructively as possible.

Illya Ovchar's picture

There are other sources of CO2 emissions, absolutely. I feel the less we emit, the better it is. Even if it's 0.00023%

Simon Davies's picture

‘I condone anyone who used the information in here to attack an artist.’

Lol you might want to change that.... Dictionaries are your friend.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thanks for pointing it out, will change.

g coll's picture

It seems Trey Ratcliff isn't fussed about his environmental damage: https://foundation.app/treyratcliff

MC G's picture

The amount of Co2 used in the making of this ridiculous article is unacceptable! Everything should be de platformed and cancelled. Hereto and forthwith.

RT Simon's picture

Excellent piece. The author should resubmit to art magazines, institutions, and universities everywhere.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Glad you like it! Feel free to share it as much as you're comfortable.

RT Simon's picture

Many of these NFT’s are just bad gif files made by non-trained creatives, or individuals who have no formal art training or understanding. I just saw an NFT promoted on Twitter depicting a teddy bear that looked like it was made by a child, for a child.

Illya Ovchar's picture

The ease of minting an NFT is surprising.

Grant Schwingle's picture

Non-trained creatives makes you sound like a pompous ass. Elites have always tried to keep untrained and unformal art from becoming anything real. Photography wasn't considered art when people first started making photographs. Graffiti and Tattoos were the same way. Strive to understand why this is popular and considered art and collectible by other people instead of just saying 'no.'

RT Simon's picture

Do you have your head shoved up your NFT? Open your eyes. When somebody makes a graphic of a teddy bear turns it into an NFT and calls it art, and tries to auction it off, it’s a joke, or even worse, It is a piece of digital trash, destroying the environment in the service of someone’s idiotic ego.. And you are a digital trash salesman?

Grant Schwingle's picture

I have not bought any NFT. I have not tried to sell any NFT I am just defending it against your ignorant abusive comments. Why does digital art not make the cut for you? As someone who probably also considers themselves an artist (otherwise why the hell are you here?) it's pretty close-minded to just consider all digital art regardless of the creator - "digital trash." Be better my friend.

J R's picture

Hi Illya,
Would you please take a look at this resource:
bit.ly/Clean-NFT
There are several Proof-of-Stake blockchains with active NFT platforms and more in development. Please help educate your audience on these low carbon alternatives.

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