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Climate concerns and the future of nonfungible tokens: Leveraging environmental benefits of the Ethereum Merge

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Journal Article

Lal, Apoorv, and Fengqi You. 2023. “Climate Concerns and the Future of Nonfungible Tokens: Leveraging Environmental Benefits of the Ethereum Merge.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 120 (29): e2303109120.

The world is facing a formidable climate predicament due to elevated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels. The preceding decade has also witnessed a dramatic surge in blockchain-based applications, constituting yet another substantial energy consumer. Nonfungible tokens (NFTs) are one such application traded on Ethereum (ETH) marketplaces that have raised concerns about their climate impacts. The transition of ETH from proof of work (PoW) to proof of stake (PoS) is a step toward reducing the carbon footprint of the NFT sector. However, this alone will not address the climate impacts of the growing blockchain industry. Our analysis indicates that NFTs can cause yearly GHG emissions of up to 18% of the peak under the energy-intensive PoW algorithm. This results in a significant carbon debt of 4.56 Mt CO2-eq by the end of this decade, equivalent to CO2 emissions from a 600-MW coal-fired power plant in 1 y which would meet residential power demand in North Dakota. To mitigate the climate impact, we propose technological solutions to sustainably power the NFT sector using unutilized renewable energy sources in the United States. We find that 15% utilization of curtailed solar and wind power in Texas or 50 MW of potential hydropower from existing nonpowered dams can support the exponential growth of NFT transactions. In summary, the NFT sector has the potential to generate significant GHG emissions, and measures are necessary to mitigate its climate impact. The proposed technological solutions and policy support can help promote climate-friendly development in the blockchain industry.

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