Over the past few years digital art has boomed in popularity, becoming a sector unto its own. However, its success has also raised issues surrounding its negative impact on the environmental. The storage methods used to house NFTs based on blockchain technology are responsible for emitting millions of tons of carbon dioxide, which is harmful to an already overheated planet. Does the art world need to clean up its digital carbon footprint? Artalistic delves deep into the debate surrounding the environmental impact of digital art, NFT and crypto-art?

The environmental impact of NFTs and digital art: observations and analysis

We recently published several articles on the advent of digital art. This new form of contemporary art has literally exploded in the last ten years, revolutionizing the art market and allowing it to expand into unexplored territories. NFTs and the artists using this media are making headlines with one record breaking sale after another; the craze for this new art form does not seem to be waning.

The flip side of the coin

This relatively new form of art has some positive points: It is more accessible and opens new avenues of creation, especially for younger tech-savvy generations. However, negative criticism is increasing as light is being shed on the truth about the environmental impact of NFTs and digital art.

A disastrous carbon footprint

The widespread popularity of digital art is starting to be outweighed by its carbon footprint, which is high to say the least. Despite the recent craze surrounding digital art, its negative impact on the environment must be taken into account. Every aspect of online activity consumes energy and digital art is no exception; the machines and servers that store blockchain hum away, consuming massive amounts of energy.

For example, the NFT GIF "Space Cat" (depicting a cat in a rocket soaring towards the moon) uses the same amount of energy that an average European citizen uses during two months. The problem is that this example is only one in a million, as reported in an analysis by digital artist Memo Atken, who calculated that a single Ethereum transaction is estimated to have a carbon footprint on average of 35 kWH. To put this into perspective, this is roughly equivalent to an EU resident’s electric power consumption for 4 days.  

How are NFTs and digital art bad for the environment?

By 2025, the digital world’s global carbon emissions will represent 9% of greenhouse gas. The environmental impact of NFTs is not likely to improve the situation.

The problem lies in their high energy consumption and, more precisely, the energy used by the blockchain that allows them to exist. This technology is composed of blocks of binary information that record transactions and exchanges of signals on a network.

Bitcoin and Ethereum networks are the most renowned, and the majority of digital art uses Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum is one of the more energy intensive forms of blockchain and its impact on the environment is substantial. This situation is not set in stone and blockchain companies are taking steps to reduce emissions.

Ethereum blockchain and its green revolution

PoW and PoS

Blockchains operate according to two different consensus algorithms that are centralized and do not use intermediaries:

- PoW (Proof of Work): is a mechanism used to regulate the creation of blocks and the state of the blockchain. It forces miners to make trillions of numerical guesses in order to produce a valid block.

- PoS (Proof of Stake): is an alternative consensus mechanism to PoW, developed and used by a few alternative cryptocurrencies. In the Proof-of-Stake model, stakers - the PoS equivalent of miners - lock up funds in a special smart contract. Every time a new block is needed by the network, an algorithm grants a specific staker the opportunity to publish the next block. The algorithm selects the staker via lottery, depending on each staker’s percentage of total staked funds. For example, if a single staker controls 30% of all funds staked on a given network, they have a 30% chance of mining the next block.

PoS is considered to be better for the environment, since there’s no energy-intensive computing.

Ethereum 2.0

As stated above, most digital art transactions use Ethereum blockchain. Until recently, Ethereum was based on the PoW protocol. Vitalik Buterin, the Russian-Canadian computer programmer and founder of Ethereum, recently announced that the company switched to the PoS protocol in September 2022.

Over the past six months, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies have seen rapid price drops. Ethereum’s switch to the PoS consensus mechanism, called “The Merge,” was a success and could ultimately reestablish Ethereum’s positive reputation. This shift should have large and immediate effects on the environmental impact of NFTs and digital art: Ethereum 2.0’s switch to PoS is predicted to consume 99.95% less energy than it did while it used PoW, which is significant.

The future environmental impact of NFTs and digital art

This shift from PoW to PoS has been lauded by cryptocurrency fans and those working in the digital art world. However, the crypto-art industry still faces major challenges in terms of environmental preservation. As the digital world is relatively new in the span of history, a central concern surrounding its ecological impact must be considered and rules and regulations must be created to curb its negative effects.

More than 250 companies and individuals spanning the crypto and finance technology, NGO and energy and climate sectors have joined the Crypto Climate Accord, inspired by the Paris Climate Agreement. The CCA is an initiative for the crypto community focused on decarbonizing the cryptocurrency and blockchain industry. This initiative set lofty goals: transitioning all blockchains to renewable energy by 2030, with a net carbon footprint reduced to zero by the year 2040. These goals are praise-worthy, but only the future will tell if they are able to meet them.

Until then, it seems wiser to invest in traditional, non-digital art. Feel free to browse Artalistic’s virtual galleries of paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures and limited-edition prints by well-established and emerging artists.