The power demands and carbon emissions of bitcoin mining could undermine global efforts to combat climate change if stringent regulations are not placed upon the industry, a Chinese study has found. By 2024, mining of the cryptocurrency in China alone could use as much power as the entire nation of Italy uses in a year, with greenhouse gas emissions equalling those of the Czech Republic.
But rather than recommending increased taxation on bitcoin mining to curb emissions, or simply an outright ban on the practice, the paper, published today in the journal Nature, suggests that miners should be encouraged to shift their operations to regions that provide abundant low-carbon electricity.
The research is significant because China carries out at least 65% of the world’s bitcoin operations. Shouyang Wang, one of the report’s authors and chair professor at the Academy of Mathematics and Systems Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, told Forbes.com: “While everyone has focused on bitcoin’s great profitability, we want people to become more aware of its potential issues and start thinking about these questions: is this industry actually worth the associated environmental impact, and how can we make profitable bitcoin mining operation more sustainable in the future?”
Using simulation-based models, the researchers found that, short of any policy interventions, bitcoin mining in China will peak in 2024 consuming 296.59 terawatt hours of electricity—as much as a medium sized country—and generate 130.50 million metric tons of carbon emissions. The authors further note that this consumption and the resulting emissions could derail China’s efforts to decarbonize its own energy system.
“It is important to note that the adoption of this disruptive and promising technique without [taking into account] environmental concerns may pose a barrier to the worldwide effort on GHG emissions management in the near future,” Wang said, adding that the research team was “surprised by the energy consumption and carbon emission assessment results of bitcoin blockchain operation in China.”
But the solution to the challenge, the authors argue, is “moving away from the current punitive carbon tax policy to a site regulation policy”—in essence, ensuring that mining operations move to areas that guarantee high rates of renewable electricity. Under such a policy, they found, only 20% of bitcoin miners remained in coal-intensive energy regions, resulting in lower carbon emissions per dollar earned, compared to a higher taxation scenario. Under the site regulation model, the researchers found bitcoin operations generated 100.61 million metric tons at peak, as opposed to 105.19 million tons under an additional taxation scenario.
Wang said government regulation of the industry was needed, but that bitcoin miners would likely be amenable to his team’s proposed solution.
“Site regulation should be carried out by the government, placing limitations on bitcoin mining in certain regions that use coal-based heavy energy,” Wang explained. “That being said, we think that there are enough benefits to this policy which will incentivize the miners to move their operation willingly. For example, since energy prices in clean-energy regions of China are lower than that in heavy-energy regions, the miners can effectively lower their individual energy consumption cost, which would increase their profitability.”
That isn’t to say, however, that regulation is the only method by which China should be reducing the emissions impact from bitcoin mining.
“The government should also focus on upgrading the power generation facilities in clean-energy regions to ensure a consistent…