Two months into the year, NFTs continue to assert its place in the art world, but with a known environmental impact that has raised many concerns, we should pause and review what the adoption of NFTs into the art discourse might add to the art world’s existing carbon footprint dilemma.
TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
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In the art world, the question is no longer whether we can go green—we can’t. At least not in a way that would just change the world climate issue with the snap of a finger. Rather, the question to ask is perhaps which is the lesser evil: the carbon footprint of mounting exhibitions and art fairs or producing and trading NFT art? And is the art world’s embrace of NFTs offsetting all the goodwill changes the industry began to make in reducing our carbon footprint? With the disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic, the hustle of the art fair calendar had all but come to a halt through parts of 2020 and 2021, coincidentally at a time when the excessive carbon emissions and material wastage created by the frantic art fair circuit were heavily placed under scrutiny, and many galleries, museums and industry players were actively reviewing their carbon footprint, introducing new measures, and pledging net-zero carbon emission goals. When NFTs sprouted onto the art market in March 2021 with Christie’s sale of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days we were all astounded. How can a digital image even be in the same value bracket as a Monet? But the equally pressing concern we failed to address as the hype exponentially grew is the environmental impact of NFTs for an art world where sustainability was already a glaring issue.
The Numbers That Add Up
Over the past 12 months, much trending discussion in the art industry debated the position of NFTs in the discourse of art, with some proponents arguing that digital art is the future—in particular, when tokenised as NFTS. What this proposition overlooked and underdiscussed, however, is the immense carbon footprint NFTs create, which will no doubt have sway in the long-term adoption of cryptocurrency in mainstream art markets (not to mention the extreme volatility of cryptocurrencies). Although rarely spoken about in the echelons of art, in the crypto space, environmental sustainability in crypto trading is already a heavily broached topic—and one that is, as The Verge highlights, hotly contested.
Admittedly, it is extremely challenging to grasp a precise estimate on the carbon footprint of NFTs, not only because it will vary widely, but also there is still little scientific peer-reviewed studies done on it. What information is readily available so far may only suggest a ballpark figure of the real levels of carbon emissions, but it is enough already to raise concern. One of the better known studies on this topic is by artist and programmer, Memo Atken, who analysed some 80,000 transactions related to NFTs on marketplace SuperRare and concluded that a single transaction averaged a footprint of 48kg CO2. To make matters worse, his studies further analysed 18,000 NFTs on the platform CryptoArt and revealed that when it comes to a single NFT—from minting to transactions, ownership and more—the average footprint rose to a whopping 211kg CO2. Putting this into perspective, Atken notes that this is roughly equivalent to the carbon emissions of driving 1000km on petrol or flying an airplane for two hours; and an EU resident’s electricity consumption for one month or boiling a kettle 4500 times.
Understanding exactly how the whole process of NFTs creates its carbon footprint is complex but well broken down in Justine Calma’s article for The Verge—a must-read on the topic. Meanwhile the first matter-of-fact to know is that the process of mining Ethereum, which currently operates under a proof-of-work system, consumes vast amounts of fossil-fuel derived energy due to its deliberately inefficient mining process. And this is where much of the problem lies. Digiconomist suggests that a single Ethereum transaction generates a carbon footprint of 146.42kg CO2, equivalent to watching 24,403 hours of YouTube, its power consumption 262.52 kWh, equivalent to that of an average US household over 8.87 days. To again put that into perspective, the number of Ethereum transactions that took place on 27 February 2022 was an astonishing 1.125 million, which is still lower than the 1.716 million in 11 May 2021, following the Beeple sale. This was just Ethereum alone. So when one takes into account the number of transactions taking place across the crypto sphere daily as a whole, the carbon footprint is simply mind boggling.
But The Art World That Committed It First
It is important to be reminded, however, that NFTs are not the first culprit of environmental damage in the art world. The transportation and shipping of artworks, and the frequency of international air travel are two of the primary contributors of carbon emissions in art logistics. Furthermore, temporary infrastructures and packaging materials produce vast amounts of detritus. Art fairs are a major contributor, well acknowledged by organisers and those in the game. For comparison, the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) calculated the energy consumption of Frieze London in 2019 to be 88.1 tonnes CO2—and this excludes the footprint of individual gallery participants and visitors. Meanwhile, in December 2019, it was reported that fine art logistics company Dietl International had shipped a total of 167 tonnes of artworks to Art Basel Miami Beach, which had an estimated generation of 644 tonnes CO2. More recently, artist-led collective Artists Commit utilised GCC’s carbon emissions calculator and produced a report of Tate Modern’s Anicka Yi installation which was on view from October 2021 through January 2022. While not entirely comprehensive, the figures present a brutal truth in just how even a single artwork exhibition can have a large carbon footprint with hefty hidden costs.
An Unequal Comparison But A Comparison None The Less
As the above numbers indicate, it’s nearly impossible to chart a truly accurate comparison side-by-side. The contributing factors vary far and wide. However two things are for certain: firstly, the art world’s existing practices were already damaging to the environment, while cryptocurrency and all its processes were also already leaving behind an undeniable trail of carbon emissions; secondly, both the art world and the crypto sphere have been taking active measures to address its issues, mainly in the form of offsetting one’s carbon emissions and exploring environmentally-friendly alternatives (though the barrier here is often that these are not the predominantly used options). While we don’t appear to yet have the quantifiable numbers to suggest one is better or worse than the other, the question we can ask ourselves as 2022 brings us into an increasingly digitally-led existence and crypto technology continues to assert a heavy presence in the future of art is this: Did we simply swap one for the other? Did embracing NFTs into mainstream art markets simply undo the good changes the art world was beginning to witness through its efforts towards net-zero carbon emissions?
Before we get too carried away this year with how much the next crash hot NFT dropped for, and lose sleep over whether NFTs will be an art movement in its own right, we may instead be better off thinking about the environmental consequences of this shift.
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