There’s been a lot of pushback against NFTs by those concerned about its environmental impact, and this concern isn’t exactly unwarranted. The energy consumption of the blockchain is staggering – just one Ethereum transaction alone consumes as much energy as an average U.S. household uses in a week.
NFTs may make up just 3% of all transactions on the Ethereum network, but each transaction still contributes to more carbon emission than the environmentally-conscious are willing to accept. Yet, the objections raised have done little to stem the growth in demand for NFTs because the promises of blockchain technologies are just too enticing.
NFTs are hard to shake because they have enormous transformational potential. They have enabled true ownership of digital assets for the first time in history, contributed to a stronger creator economy, and are set to positively revolutionize many other industries. The principality of San Marino has even issued NFT vaccine passports because the security and transparency offered by NFTs allow easier authentication and prevent forgeries.
It’s no wonder that despite the massive energy consumption, UN experts believe blockchain technologies can be a driver for sustainable development. Because the blockchain is immune to tampering, it allows complete transparency of records, which is essential for creating institutional changes in countries where there are high levels of corruption.
The UNEP has also been testing the potential of blockchain technology for environmental protection. Blockchain technologies could provide a trustworthy, transparent way of tracking emissions, enable greater climate financing and accelerate the adoption of renewable energy sources through the creation of intermittent, decentralised energy markets.
Despite all the potential benefits, the massive energy consumption of the blockchain is a hurdle that needs to be overcome, and many in the industry are working to improve sustainability as adoption increases.
Towards an Energy Efficient Ethereum
Blockchains like Ethereum (where most NFTs live) currently consume vast amounts of energy because they use a proof-of-work system to validate and secure transactions on the network. This involves solving complex cryptographic problems that require huge amounts of computing power.
Amidst the growing environmental scrutiny, Ethereum announced plans to shift to a proof-of-stake system that instead requires participants to simply stake their Ethereum to contribute to the network’s operations. This is part of their upgrade to Ethereum 2.0, which will make Ethereum more scalable, secure, and sustainable. Set to roll out at the end of 2021, Ethereum 2.0 is estimated to reduce the network’s emissions by 99%.
This means that from the time of writing, there’s only 3 months to go before we see a more energy efficient Ethereum. It’s not a long wait, but there’s more we can do in the meantime.
There are other blockchains that currently use far less energy than Ethereum. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a major shift of NFTs away from Ethereum right now, because the network’s size, large pool of developers, and frequent upgrades make it the most popular choice for permanent storage of assets such as NFTs.
Until Ethereum 2.0 rolls out, however, these alternate chains can provide an early solution for those who want change now. One such alternative is Zilliqa, which uses only 0.009% of the energy that Ethereum uses. The Mintable platform offers an option for users to use the Zilliqa network to mint and trade NFTs as a more environmentally friendly (and cheaper) alternative to Ethereum. However, minting NFTs on a non-Ethereum network means they’re locked out of Ethereum’s NFT ecosystem, which could affect tradability.
Layer 2 Solutions
Layer 2 solutions also reduce the impact of NFTs. Built on top of the Ethereum mainnet (layer 1), layer 2 solutions allow transactions to be bundled, processed off-chain, then submitted back to the mainnet in one transaction, making the network more efficient and drastically reducing energy consumption.
Layer 2 solutions are great because they enable traders to stay on Ethereum, while massively reducing energy consumption and gas fees.
Mintable makes use of a layer 2 solution by Immutable. Immutable X is the first Layer 2 scaling solution for NFTs on Ethereum, with instant confirmation, massive scalability, and no gas fees without compromising user security. Find out more about Immutable X in this article.
There’s no denying that the current energy consumption of NFTs is higher than it should be, especially if we want to see widespread adoption. As with any new technology, achieving scalability and sustainability takes time. Major changes are needed if we are to actualize the conceptual promises of blockchain technologies, especially as a driver of social and environmental sustainability. Thankfully, these changes are already underway.