Digital & NFTs
Exact figures and estimates as to the carbon impact of digital communication are hard to measure and continually changing as technology evolves and new research sheds further light.
As an industry, cumulative efforts will have a major impact and we should do what we can. Many changes made will have a positive impact on our business in other ways.
Digital exhibitions and Online Viewing Rooms have the potential to provide a lower carbon alternative to real-world exhibitions where long-distance travel is involved.
While certainly not without an environmental consequence the impact of digital technologies are less significant than activities such as flying. However, some aspects of our collective digital usage - such as bitcoin and NFT production - have negative environmental impacts. GCC will be continually researching and updating its advice on this area.
Many of the digital resources used by the art world are helpful and innovative but they come with an environmental cost.
The blockchain is a system that allows you to store transactions in a way that is impossible to hack. It is decentralised and transparent.
Blockchain technology has great potential for use in the art world, such as for securely and reliably storing proofs of transactions ranging from authenticity and provenance, to condition reports.
Unfortunately, blockchain technology has been problematic from a sustainability and energy-consumption perspective and urgent attempts have been underway to fix this.
If you’re interested in choosing a blockchain app, ask the developers which blockchain it uses.
Here is a basic breakdown of the most common blockchains. Bear in mind that this is a fast-moving technology which changes rapidly:
Bitcoin/Dogecoin—uses older technology (“Proof of Work”) that requires a vast amount of electricity to mine the underlying cryptocurrency and thus to develop the blockchain. This is run by more than one million individuals, oftentimes at the scale of whole data centers built specifically for this purpose, leading to a morally unsupportable outcome whereby Bitcoin mining now uses an estimated 0.1 percent of the entire global electricity supply: a truly terrible carbon footprint. This blockchain uses more electricity than Argentina.
Ethereum/Neo—uses a hybrid model that is attempting to transition to a more efficient way of working (“Proof of Stake”). Some have already made this transition (Neo), some are working towards this goal (Ethereum). The result is a much reduced carbon footprint compared with Bitcoin. Even so, in 2018, Ethereum used more electric energy than Iceland, so it is still far from environmentally friendly.
Cardano/Polkadot/Algorand—these blockchains are switching to a new model that allows lots of transactions per second and is vastly more efficient and highly scalable. The electricity costs are comparable to using traditional servers in a centralized application.
Though things are improving, the most well-known blockchain models are the least sustainable, so if you are concerned about CO2 emissions, you should choose wisely.
In some ways, the problem of the blockchain is that it hit the public imagination—and that of app developers and entrepreneurs—long before the technology was fully mature and many of these scalability and energy-consumption problems have yet to be ironed out.
NFTs (Non-fungible tokens)
The blockchain also forms a critical backbone of another fast-evolving trend, NFTs, most of which live on the Ethereum blockchain (one of the less environmentally friendly ones).
In the form of “crypto collectibles,” NFTs, which are generally traded on specific platforms, can be considered at once a new form of medium or “artwork type,” a rights-management mechanism, and digital assets in and of themselves (though the assets may be stored elsewhere) that revolve around a value model based on verifiable scarcity.
NFT offers new and interesting opportunities to artists, especially those who work mainly in the digital space, not least because artist resale rights are baked into the technology.
If you decide to explore NFTs, we advise to proceed cautiously. The Guardian estimated that the sale of 303 editions of Earth, an NFT produced by the musician and artist Grimes earlier this month, “used the same electrical power as the average EU resident would in 33 years, and produced 70 tons of CO2 emissions.”
You can read more about this on our news section.
The amount of energy used to serve web pages is very small. Efficient web servers are capable of delivering hundreds of pages per second and the total energy consumption of a server will have a finite maximum. Compared with other sources of digital energy consumption, the website should not be a major concern.
Video meetings consume a vastly disproportionate amount of energy compared to other forms of communication such as audio phone calls. However, if face-to-face is required then a video meeting does have a much lower environmental impact than in-person meetings when you take into account travel and other factors.
Research into the carbon footprint of email is somewhat unreliable as many published statistics come from a pre-cloud era when email contributed more to carbon emissions because many companies ran their own email servers. The consolidation of resources by cloud platforms has made email technology considerably more efficient but it still represents a significant volume of data exchanged among and stored on huge numbers of computers.
Email, especially with large attachments, uses substantially more energy than messaging services. Messaging services such as Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack, Signal have a comparatively negligible environmental impact and are a preferable alternative where possible.
- Simple daily routines such as shutting down computers and unused devices, turning off or unplugging electronics at the wall, turning off the air conditioning, etc., are likely to have a far greater positive impact on our carbon footprint than any single organisational level decision--as well as saving significant energy costs.
- The most impactful change you or your organisation can make, if you have not already done so, is to switch email and business applications to Cloud Computing services. Google claims to run their data centres on 100% renewable energy, however they don’t claim to run all their data centres on 100% renewable energy all the time, so care must be taken when choosing the best service.
- Get work and personal email under control, avoid including long email threads in reply emails, unsubscribe from unnecessary lists, delete attachments saved elsewhere and use alternative messaging services other than email, where possible.
- If thinking about using bitcoins and NFTs, then proceed cautiously and research carefully.