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How do NFTs hurt the environment?

2022 looks to be the year of the NFT for crypto-bros, but the so-called art is as painful for the planet as it is to look at.

Dan Torrey looks at NFT art hanging in a gallery during the North American Bitcoin Conference held at the James L Knight Center on January 19, 2022 in Miami, Florida.
Joe RaedleAFP

Despite cryptocurrency taking a battering at the start of 2022, the mania surrounding Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) continues to rage. Celebrities are involved in the scheme, bringing a veneer of respectability into what has been called an elaborate Ponzi scheme.

Notwithstanding the ethics of NFTs in-and-of themselves, there are sustainability problems that architects of the Metaverse (the what?) have yet to answer. How is the process of storing NFTs destructive for the environment? Can they ever be made sustainably?

If you want a lowdown on what an NFT is, check out our article laying down the basics.

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The ecological impact of NFTs

The technology that is used to store NFTs is the technology at the base of all cryptocurrency: the Blockchain.

The blockchain is a database for storing crypto-based information. What is special about this database is that the records are decentralized and not controlled by a third party. Once each 'block' of data has been filled, the system starts filling up another. This means there is a clear timeline of transactions that can't be tampered with, keeping users data and investments safe.

All cool. Except, this method of storing information is extremely energy taxing. Huge servers must be set up and run to keep the blocks being filled, or the system ends. The servers must keep on being filled, or everyone who is invested in the process is at risk.

While not particularly used for NFT transactions, the harvesting and storage of Bitcoin, also using Blockchain tech, used as much energy as the whole of Angola in 2017. Considering the amount of time that has passed, and how massive the crypto beast has become, this value is without a doubt much larger. Therefore, purchasing NFTs, which use a similar coin called Ethereum, means the buyer needs to shoulder some of the ecological responsibility for using the system.

For another example, a report from The New York Times claims that the creation of an average NFT brings with it ”over 200 kilograms of planet-warming carbon, equivalent to driving 500 miles in a typical American gasoline-powered car.”

“If you look at how much energy we are going to spend in the meantime, it’s ridiculous,” says Fanny Lakoubay, a crypto art collector and adviser.

At COP26 in Glasgow, supposedly the biggest action to tackle climate change this century, was described as a "compromise" by the head of the UN, and tons of more energy use to store pictures of monkeys is not a viable solution to keeping the planet from going over boiling point. Unless methods of storing NFTs become more sustainable, they are damaging for the environment in where humanity can't afford them to be.