Bitcoin gets even dirtier

China’s ban on cryptocurrency mining in the spring of 2021 has significantly worsened Bitcoin’s environmental impact, according to new mining research published in Joule. This is because Bitcoin miners were mining a significant amount of Chinese hydropower which suddenly evaporated when China made mining illegal, said Alex de Vries, one of the study’s authors and researcher at the School of Business and Economics of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

The miners therefore took their belongings elsewhere, including to countries using much dirtier energy than China. Electricity sources powering the Bitcoin network were only 25.1% renewable in August 2021, nearly 17 percentage points lower than the 2020 average.

Bitcoin mining produces as much pollution each year as Greece created in 2019, according to the study. A single Bitcoin transaction results in the same carbon footprint as a traveler traveling from New York to Amsterdam.

“After China banned Bitcoin mining, everyone expected it to get greener, but somewhat surprisingly we are seeing the opposite.” said de Vries. “Much of the hydroelectricity that these miners used to get in China has now been replaced by natural gas from the United States.”

Bitcoin mining is still booming in the United States. According to the study, many US bitcoin mines are fueled by natural gas and coal. Kentucky is now offering grants to crypto miners, seeking to attract companies for the state’s coal industry.
Kazakhstan has also become a destination for Bitcoin miners. According to the study, the country’s electricity grid depends on hard coal, which is even more polluting than the coal used in China.

The hydropower behind Bitcoin mines in China has often been held up by cryptocurrency advocates to refute criticism of the technology’s environmental impact.

In May, Coinbase – one of the biggest cryptocurrency exchanges – published a “fact check” citing Chinese hydropower plants in an attempt to undermine the idea that Bitcoin contributed to climate change.

Coinbase did not respond to questions from CNN about whether it is maintaining its fact-checking in light of China’s cryptocurrency crackdown, but said in a statement that it believes “the industry is innovating at an encouraging pace to solve these challenges… Community-led change is possible and crypto can be part of the fight against climate change if we come together to solve these challenges.”


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