Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Dirty bits: the cost of cryptocurrencies

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Energy
Dirty bits: the cost of cryptocurrencies Nickolastock
30 Jan
2018
Cryptocurrencies might be setting the world’s digital economy on fire, but for Marco Magrini, they’re also heating up the physical planet

Among the Digital Revolution myths, there was the dream of a decline in fossil-fuelled energy consumption through a variety of reasons, such as video-calls replacing air travel. In the last 20 years though, the number of air passengers has skyrocketed, and the gigantic stream of data crossing the world at light-speed, mostly powered by gas and coal, is already emitting as much carbon dioxide as civil aviation – two per cent of the total.

For decades, the progress in miniaturisation increased both performance and power efficiency of microprocessors. Now, having approached the minimum physical limit of a few nanometre, a similar progress is mostly obtained with multiple ‘cores’, which make chips faster but also much hungrier. It is estimated that in 2016, data centres worldwide gobbled 416 terawatts per hour, one and half times the United Kingdom’s electricity consumption. It is predicted to double every four years.

Data usage has spread monumentally in geographical, technological and social senses. Bits and bytes have infiltrated almost every aspect of our daily life, and are busy taking over any remaining ones. Billions of connected devices, from garage doors to lights, from cars to medical equipment, are sending data back and forth throughout the planet, continuously. But there is something more. The explosion of artificial intelligence applications implies a substantial increase in data processing and, therefore, in energy consumption. Not only are the number of connected devices and AI-based services expected to double in a handful of years, but we have fresh examples of how the digital realm itself could get greedier and greedier.

Let’s take Bitcoin, the quintessential cryptocurrency. In order to ‘mine’ it in the public ledger called a ‘blockchain’, you need to run painstaking calculations. This is largely being carried out in China, where the energy to power the computers comes from cheap and dirty coal. One company, Bitmain Tech, keeps 25,000 computers running inside eight Inner Mongolian warehouses. The Bitcoin industry’s power use is said to equal that of three million US households. Plus there are at least 32 other cryptocurrencies out there. A few big names, such as Apple and Google, are sourcing clean energy for some of their operations. But it’s not enough. While the world keeps running on fossil fuels, our digital sustainability is in question. 

This was published in the February 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    The air that we breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

Exciting news for wildlife and photography enthusiasts alike – the…

Wildlife

A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the…

Wildlife

Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…

Climate

Brazil’s shift to the right of the political spectrum could…

Wildlife

Laura Cole travels to Orkney to find out why numbers…

Wildlife

The unprecedented frequency of winter tick epidemics have resulted in…

Oceans

Ocean debris, mostly composed of plastic, reaches remote Atlantic islands…

Geophoto

With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper…

Nature

Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of…

Tectonics

The reason for the unusual location of Mount St Helens…

Climate

Most plants thicken their leaves in response to higher carbon…

Climate

Not just the preserve of flatulent cows, methane is causing…

Climate

As the United States’ Supreme Court delays a landmark climate…

Geophoto

Of Britain's 15 national parks, the New Forest is probably…

Energy

The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…

Tectonics

Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away

Climate

Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…

Wildlife

Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…

Oceans

A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…

Climate

The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…