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Podcast: Blockchain for conservation? Maybe, but leave the crypto out

Three forms of cryptocurrency. Image via Pixabay.

  • The increasingly popular blockchain technology is being used for conservation finance purposes, but it comes with some significant downsides, both functional and environmental.
  • The “mining” process for popular cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, is highly energy intensive, comparable to the annual electricity usage of entire nations.
  • Journalist Judith Lewis Mernit and author Brett Scott join the Mongabay Newscast to discuss these environmental impacts, complications, and the relationship of our financial systems with our ecological ones.

In this episode of the Mongabay Newscast, Brett Scott, author of Cloudmoney: Cash, Cards, Crypto and the War for our Wallets, gives a brief history of blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. He explains the touted value proposition of the technology and the complications and downsides it poses, specifically for conservation. Journalist Judith Lewis Mernit joins to discuss her recent reporting in Yale Environment 360 on the bitcoin mining surge in Texas and how this has driven up energy costs for the average consumer.

Listen here:

Blockchain technology comes in many forms. There’s cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, NFTs (non-fungible tokens), and smart contracts, to name a few. They’re increasingly being used to fund conservation or to complete transactions. While blockchain technology can aid transparency by serving as a public ledger, there’s a host of instances that make its usage arguably impractical or environmentally damaging.

Cryptocurrency itself is decentralized, and is verified on virtual ledgers, yet largely functions like an asset. The speculative nature of it (especially NFTs) raises questions about its viability for fundraising. Many conservation efforts rely on intergovernmental oversight for accountability. If transactions are automated and you remove that intermediary, who judges the efficacy of a completed project before issuing a payment?

The image shows Four out of 10000 unique VeKings. VeKings are a collection of 9,999 unique non-fungible tokens (NFT) stored on VeChains digital ledger (blockchain). Image by RingrEven via Wikimedia Commons (CC0).

Texas now hosts a quarter of all bitcoin “mining” businesses in the entire world, but at the expense of driving up energy costs for consumers. Prices for electricity in Texas are 70% higher over the previous year. Bitcoin mining, by itself, uses more electricity annually than the countries of Belgium or Venezuela. With the outsized environmental impact of the energy-hungry mining process, does cryptocurrency’s touted funding potential gel with the larger environmental downsides it comes with?

All these questions and more are explored on this episode.

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Banner Image: Three forms of cryptocurrency. Image by WorldSpectrum via Pixabay.

Mike DiGirolamo is Mongabay’s audience engagement associate. Find him on Twitter @MikeDiGirolamo, Instagram, or TikTok via @midigirolamo.

Correction 8/10/22: Texas’ kwh rate reached $90 during winter storm Uri, not $900 as stated in the podcast audio. Ethereum is 1/10th the value of Bitcoin, not 1/100th.

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