Bitcoin is a digital currency. Whether that is a good thing or not is beside the point. What is important is that as a creature of the digital world, it relies on servers powered by electricity for its existence — a lot of them. Even though the use of renewable energy has surged in the past decade, the majority of electricity today still comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal. That means the digital world we have created — all our cell phones, streaming TV, video games, internet of things, and yes, bitcoin — creates lots of carbon emissions.
According to the BBC, the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet, and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions — about the same as the airline industry. But the problem is expanding. Mike Hazas, a researcher at Lancaster University, tells the BBC emissions from digital devices are expected to double by 2025.
Bitcoin goes beyond being a digital currency, though. It’s extra energy intensive on purpose — bitcoin mining is supposed to be hard and costly.
In March, Tesla shocked the world when it said it would begin allowing customers to pay for their cars using bitcoin. 6 weeks later, the company reversed course and stopped accepting bitcoin for purchases. In a statement, Elon Musk said, “Tesla has suspended vehicle purchases using bitcoin. We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel.
“Cryptocurrency is a good idea on many levels and we believe it has a promising future, but this cannot come at great cost to the environment. Tesla will not be selling any bitcoin and we intend to use it for transactions as soon as mining transitions to a more sustainable energy. We are also looking at other cryptocurrencies that use <1% of bitcoin’s energy/transaction.”
But now it appears Tesla and Musk have rethought their position. On Wednesday, Musk told a “B Word” conference that Tesla will most likely start accepting bitcoin again.
“I wanted a little bit more due diligence to confirm that the percentage of renewable energy usage is most likely at or above 50%, and that there is a trend towards increasing that number, and if so, Tesla would resume accepting bitcoin. Most likely the answer is that Tesla would resume accepting bitcoin. Tesla’s mission is accelerating the advent of sustainable energy. We can’t be the company that does that and also not do appropriate diligence on the energy usage of bitcoin.”
Editor’s note: The issue isn’t ONLY what type of power plant powers miners. Every serious/decent/real plan showing how we can get the climate crisis under control indicates that we need to massively reduce energy use while we quickly scale of renewable energy projects. Bitcoin drives us in the opposite direction, as it’s extremely, ridiculous, insanely energy intensive. Jacking up energy demand means that the solar panels and wind turbines we feverishly produce will be used to satisfy increasing energy demand more than to retire fossil fuel power plants. It’s just not a good idea.
Musk added that he personally owns bitcoin, ethereum, and dogecoin, separate and apart from the bitcoin that Tesla and SpaceX own. “I might pump, but I don’t dump,” Musk said. “I definitely do not believe in getting the price high and selling. I would like to see bitcoin succeed.”