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The last few weeks have brought a torrent of headlines related to the increasingly astronomical prices fetched by NFT (non-fungible token) art: nearly half a million dollars for the Nyan Cat gif; $6 million for 10 pieces by musician Grimes; $2.5 million (so far) for Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s first-ever tweet. And today, March 11, a compilation of 5,000 JPEG images by digital artist Beeple sold for $69.3 million in a Christie’s auction — catapulting Beeple to the ranks of the world’s most expensive living artists, just trailing Jeff Koons and David Hockney.
As crypto art speculation rises, however, so do the planet’s temperature and questions about the carbon footprint of NFTs. These unique works are typically sold in “drops,” timed online sales held by NiftyGateway, OpenSea, SuperRare, and Foundation, to name just a few of the most popular marketplaces. NFTs exist on the energy costly Ethereum blockchain; in layman’s terms, they are created (“minted”) based on a process known as proof-of-work (PoW), which necessitates the use of large networks of processing machines that emit CO2.
Ethereum’s developers are planning a shift to the less energy-intensive proof-of-stake (PoS) model of validating transactions, though the timeline for the switch remains uncertain.
The crypto medium has seduced thousands of artists who view it as a way to bypass the usual barriers to entry of the traditional art market. Not all of them are as established as Beeple or Grimes — some have been struggling to monetize their work for years, and sales from their mints are helping pay the rent during a difficult year for the cultural sector. Plus, NFTs allows them to protect their work by verifying its authenticity on the blockchain and establishing a clear ledger of digital ownership.
Others, however, are asking: at what cost? Joanie Lemercier, a French sculptor known for his light projections as well as his climate activism, sold six NFTs in his first blockchain drop. Using Cryptoart.wtf, a website started by his fellow artist Memo Akten that tracks emissions associated with individual drops, Lemercier was appalled to learn that his sale consumed 8.7 megawatt-hours of energy — equivalent to two years of energy use in his studio.
“People say that hopefully it will be fixed in a year or two so it’s OK to be exploitative right now,” Akten told Wired. “We have to change our existing habits.”
Sara Ludy, a multimedia artist based in New Mexico, says she is worried about the “anti-NFT mob mentality” and attacks against creators who choose to partake in the new technology.
“I’m researching and trying to learn about the dynamics/energy usage myself and there’s a lot to sift through,” she told Hyperallergic. “While I have not minted an NFT, I will not stand by and watch my peers being attacked for trying to survive or find ways to be compensated for years worth of work.”
“I have yet to see one person who has criticized the NFT space offer a counter solution to how artists can be compensated for their labor, in the middle of a pandemic no less,” she says.
This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)
In a recent post on Medium, the NFT trading platform SuperRare attempted to dispel what it deems as misconceptions surrounding the energy usage of crypto art. The company compared the Ethereum blockchain to a train engine with a fixed speed and transactions on the network to seats on the train, arguing that minting and trading NFTs does not increase CO2 emissions — presumably in the same way a train continues to run regardless of how many passengers are on board.
Many felt the analogy misses the point: by contributing to the NFT market hype, artists are increasing demand for ETH, which in turn increases carbon emissions.
“If more & more people want to get on, they’ll need a bigger train. Or more trains,” countered Ilse Gort, a Netherlands-based illustrator. “Not to mention that passengers do weigh it down and increase the energy it consumes. But it’s all a bad argument to shirk responsibility.”
SuperRare said it would commit to carbon offsets, projects that reduce emissions around the world, to mitigate the impact of Ethereum on the planet. Similarly, Open Earth Foundation told Gizmodo that it is helping Beeple calculate the carbon footprint of his work to provide offsets, and the artist agreed that NFTs “must be done in a sustainable way.” (Some are skeptical about the benefits of offsetting, however, and question its potential to counterbalance the negative effects of fossil fuels.)
Individual platforms could choose to sidestep the Ethereum blockchain altogether and opt for more ecologically-minded alternatives, but the decentralized nature of the crypto space makes that challenging. In a recent interview with Hyperallergic, Lindsay Howard, Head of Community at the new NFT platform Foundation, explained the website was initially launched on a proof-of-stake model. The immediate feedback from collectors and artists was that Foundation was “basically an island” — because other platforms like OpenSea were using the Ethereum blockchain, the NFTs couldn’t be verified in the same way.
“We had spent a month and a half migrating over to a proof of stake and decided to spend a month and a half coming back to Ethereum on a proof of work model,” Howard said. “Because we thought, we’re not going to do anything for any artists if no one wants to be here.”
It’s not enough for an individual marketplace to shift to a more sustainable model, she added. “You can’t just ask one platform to go over somewhere else and be more energy efficient. If that’s going to work, everyone would need to move back over.” In a bid to help advance Ethereum’s shift to proof-of-stake, known as ETH 2.0, Foundation is helping support the development of the more energy-efficient version by running “nodes” that verify blocks and transaction data.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of Ethereum, however, there are more eco-friendly options, some of which are hundreds of times more efficient than Ethereum, according to Akten. Artist Jose Andres Rosero created a Google spreadsheet that lists the different NFT platforms available and whether they use the PoW or PoS system for minting artworks.
“The current narrative in spaces like Twitter and Clubhouse would leave one to believe that the only way for artists and collectors to participate is via these popular Proof-of-Work, ethereum based platforms,” he said. “This is simply not true.” Pixeos, for instance, runs on the EOS blockchain instead, which claims to be carbon neutral.
Rosero has not minted his own work yet, but owns three NFTs and collaborated with SuperRare on an editorial about crypto art and activism during Black Lives Matter protests last year.
“The way I see it, most folks who got in early have their investments in Ethereum-based NFTs and will probably wait until that blockchain makes its improvements,” Rosero continued. “It’s unfortunate that even though several energy efficient alternatives exist, there is such a customer lock-in around one blockchain.” Rosero adds that he is against targeting individual artists, many of whom may not understand the technology, and echoes Howard’s calls for a community effort around harm reduction.