The environmental footprint of crypto mining

Published on 25 November 2023 by in Research

environmental footprint of bitcoin crypto mining


Experts estimate that some crypto-assets consume roughly the same amount of energy per year as complete countries such as Spain. Not only is this incredibly bad for the environment, especially if that energy is sourced from fossil fuels, it also makes the cryptocurrency realm very sensitive to changes in climate policies, because cryptocurrencies are fully reliant on their energy supply. 

In this article, we aim to provide an overview of the causes of the high energy consumption of cryptocurrencies and the impacts this has on the environment. Furthermore, we will explore what solutions there are to the high energy consumption, such as other, less energy-intensive consensus mechanisms, and more sustainable sources of energy.

The energy consumption of crypto-assets

Why do crypto-assets require so much energy?

The origin of many crypto-assets’ high energy consumption can be found in their underlying technology. Many crypto-assets, such as Bitcoin, rely on a decentralized ledger technology known as blockchain. This technology is at the core of transaction validation and the recording of transactions. Several components of this technology, such as consensus mechanisms and the hardware, need energy to be operable. Depending on the size of the network and the type of consensus mechanism used, the energy consumption of one cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, can grow up to the equivalent of mid-sized countries.

Proof of Work consensus mechanism: high energy impact

The proof of work (PoW) consensus mechanism, which, among others, is used by Bitcoin, requires substantial amounts of energy. It is one of the main drivers behind the high energy consumption of many crypto assets. 

In a PoW consensus mechanism, miners compete with each other to solve complex mathematical puzzles to add blocks to the blockchain. The first one to solve the puzzle gets the privilege of adding a new block of transactions to the blockchain and is rewarded with cryptocurrency (in the case of Bitcoin, it’s the block reward) and transaction fees. This competition for rewards is the primary driver of energy consumption. Miners invest in powerful hardware and expend vast amounts of computational power to increase their chances of being the first to solve the puzzle. Around the world, there are mega bitcoin mining farms, full of specialized computer equipment solely dedicated to the mining of bitcoin. These farms have an incredibly large energy consumption. 

As more and more miners join the network seeking the mining reward, the difficulty of the puzzle increases, ensuring a consistent block generation rate. Miners respond to this increase in difficulty by adding more computational power to their operations, thus further increasing their energy consumption. 

The high costs of elaborate mining operations provide a high level of security to the blockchain network, while also maintaining decentralization. It would be incredibly costly for anyone to rewrite or alter the transaction history because it would require outperforming the combined computational power of the entire network, which is a highly improbable and expensive task.

Because decentralization and security are prime features of many blockchains, it is hard to take proof of work mechanisms and their energy consumption out of the equation. 

Resource-intensive network infrastructure

Outside of miners, other parts of crypto asset networks can be quite energy intensive as well. Full nodes, the computers that maintain a complete copy of the blockchain and validate transactions and blocks, do not engage in the mining process, but they do consume electricity to operate. The operation of the network infrastructure itself, such as servers, data centers, and networking equipment also requires energy. Since these components are essential for maintaining the availability and reliability of the blockchain network, it is hard to cut energy in these components.

Not every blockchain uses the same amount of energy

It is important to note that the energy consumption of these components varies significantly depending on the blockchain’s design, consensus mechanism, and usage. Blockchain networks that use Proof of Stake or other more energy-efficient consensus mechanisms tend to have lower energy footprints compared to PoW-based networks like Bitcoin.

The consequences of high energy consumption

High energy consumption comes with a whole array of negative consequences, both for people and planet. These consequences are especially impactful when the energy used is derived from the burning of fossil fuels, which has long been the main source of energy globally.

Greenhouse gas emissions and global warming

One of the most pressing environmental concerns is the substantial carbon footprint associated with energy-intensive cryptocurrencies. A significant portion of cryptocurrency mining operations relies on electricity generated from fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas. The combustion of these fuels releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change. Climate change on its own comes with a whole range of other negative impacts, such as extreme weather, species extinction, and sea level rise.

Air pollution

Mining operations in regions with heavy fossil fuel use not only contribute to greenhouse gas emissions but also release other harmful pollutants into the air, including sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter. These pollutants have adverse effects on air quality and can harm human health and ecosystems.

Resource consumption

The production and disposal of mining hardware, such as ASICs and GPUs, consume natural resources and contribute to electronic waste (e-waste) concerns. The manufacturing of these devices involves the extraction of raw materials, energy-intensive manufacturing processes, and transportation, all of which have environmental impacts.

Energy infrastructure pressure

In some regions, the concentration of cryptocurrency mining operations places strain on local energy infrastructure. The high demand for electricity by miners can lead to electricity shortages for other users or necessitate the construction of additional power plants, potentially causing further environmental damage.

Energy efficiency critiques

The energy-intensive nature of PoW cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin raises concerns about energy efficiency in an era when energy conservation and sustainability are paramount. Critics argue that the energy spent on mining could be better used to address more pressing global issues, such as clean energy production or climate change mitigation.

More sustainable alternatives to crypto mining

There is no doubt that the high energy consumption of the crypto assets market is bad for the environment. However, it is not all doom and gloom – there are multiple solutions and alternatives that either decrease the amount of energy that is needed, or that shift energy consumption to more sustainable energy sources. In this section, we will highlight both approaches.

Decreasing energy requirements: Proof of Stake consensus mechanism

Proof of Stake (PoS) is a consensus mechanism that offers a stark contrast to the energy-intensive Proof of Work (PoW). In a PoS system, validators are chosen to create new blocks or validate transactions based on the amount of cryptocurrency they hold and are willing to “stake” as collateral. This design eliminates the need for miners to compete in solving complex puzzles, reducing the computational power and energy consumption dramatically. PoS networks validate transactions and secure the blockchain through economic incentives rather than energy-intensive computations. Consequently, PoS is considered a more energy-efficient alternative, as it significantly lowers the environmental footprint associated with blockchain technology while maintaining network security and decentralization. This shift towards PoS represents a promising step toward a more sustainable and eco-friendly blockchain ecosystem.

Alternative energy sources

Another approach for lowering the environmental impact of crypto assets’ energy consumption is by switching from fossil fuel powered energy to energy originating from renewable or more sustainable sources. Examples of renewable energy include solar energy, which is especially suitable for mining operations, because solar panels can be placed on the mining buildings themselves, wind energy, geothermal energy, and hydropower. Each of these alternative energy sources come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages, both for climate and the mining process. In our “sustainable energy for bitcoin mining”-series, we delve into each of these sustainable energy sources, looking at the benefits, challenges, and their suitability for the crypto mining industry.

Other consequences of high energy requirements for the crypto asset market

The impacts of the high energy requirements of many crypto assets are not limited to the environment. The need for so much energy has implications for the crypto asset market itself as well.

Vulnerability for energy policies

Firstly, the high dependency on energy makes crypto markets vulnerable to changes in energy policies from countries, or collectives of countries such as the EU. With climate change becoming an increasingly pressing issue, many countries are debating new policies for topics such as sustainable energy, energy efficiency, and decreasing the production of energy from fossil fuels. Because many crypto asset markets are so reliant on energy for their operations, changes in energy policy can affect the realm of crypto to a great extent. Therefore, it is important for mining operations and developers to anticipate policy changes and continue to work on further increasing the sustainability of their activities. 

Sensitive to fluctuations in energy prices

In addition to vulnerability to changes in energy policies, crypto asset markets are also sensitive to fluctuations in energy prices. Especially miners in proof of work consensus mechanisms have to deal with changing energy prices. When energy costs rise, it can affect mining profitability, the distribution of mining activity, and the overall health of the network. Miners must continually assess the economic feasibility of their operations in response to energy price changes, which can, in turn, influence the stability and security of crypto asset markets.


In conclusion, the energy consumption of crypto assets, particularly those employing the Proof of Work consensus mechanism, stands at the intersection of technological innovation and environmental impact. While these digital currencies have ushered in a new era of decentralized finance and digital transactions, they have also raised pressing concerns about their carbon footprint. The extensive energy usage, often driven by mining operations, results in greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, resource depletion, and localized infrastructure challenges. These environmental consequences have prompted both regulatory scrutiny and industry introspection, leading to the exploration of more sustainable alternatives like Proof of Stake (PoS) and energy-efficient practices. 

In the coming years and decades, the crypto community must find a way to balance environmental responsibility with innovation to contribute to a future for both people and planet. As this conversation evolves, the future of crypto assets may very well hinge on their ability to align with global sustainability goals and address their energy-related challenges.