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Navigating the environmental impacts of NFTs as an independent artist

I began my series on LÂLKA Explores Web3 & NFTs when I saw how polarising the topic was. I saw the vitriolic backlash against artists from fans, and between artists, as NFTs became villainized as environmental travesties. Aware that most things on social media exist in echo chambers, it frustrated me when most opinions I saw online provided little to no facts, and I saw how people formed judgements based on headlines. I wanted to explore not just the technology but its environmental implications for myself, so I began to research – questioning my own current practices in the process – and eventually construct my own view on this matter. 


It’s important to be reminded that NFTs are not the only culprit for environmental damage. Industries such as agriculture and energy have far more impact on the environment – but that’s not the topic of this discussion. If we are to limit this discussion to just the music and art industries, things like touring, an art exhibition, the transportation and shipping of artworks and materials are all major contributors to environmental damage. Therefore, it seems hyperbolic to me when people criticise NFTs without considering the carbon-heavy models that we are used to consuming art and music because those models have been around much longer than NFTs. Thus, as an artist, my approach is about becoming aware of the challenges new technologies come with (in this case, the environmental impact of NFTs) to make informed choices in order to leverage all the benefits it also comes with (in this case, I’m talking about music-NFTs). 


The most famous research on the environmental impact of NFTs are by Lemercier (1) and Atken (2). These studies have been largely a DIY affair, with no peer-reviewed research done by academics and the methodology being used by different parties varies widely. I’m not saying that this immediately makes the research done by Lemercier and Atken invalid; I’m just saying that there needs to be more stringent research that also calculates the direct relationship between NFTs and CO2 emissions. To calculate the direct relationship of NFTs and CO2 emissions, one would have to calculate if NFTs have caused a shift in demand for the overall blockchain network. 


To put things into perspective, Ethereum accounts for roughly 0.02% of our total CO2 footprint. NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain are an even smaller fraction of that 0.02%. (3) To put it into context, YouTube and the entire Ethereum network have a similar carbon footprint. (4) Streaming is responsible for 3-4% of the global carbon footprint. (5) This measurement includes measuring the carbon footprint of producing devices, and most of this consumption comes from fossil fuels. One hour of music streaming produces about 55 grams of emissions. CDs emissions are three times that of streaming, and vinyl’s emissions are 40 times bigger. (6) Clearly, streaming has less negative impact on the environment than CDs and vinyls. We are streaming more – thus increasing carbon emissions – but we are also replacing consumption models that are more carbon-intensive. 


We live in a capitalist society, and as artists we need to navigate these capitalist structures to survive. One of the things artists like myself do is sell physical merchandise like clothes. With streaming services paying almost nothing, I rely on the sale of these merchandise to financially survive. Artist and software engineer Sterling Crispin provides a comparison of NFTs on a per dollar basis to other things artists sell: assuming an NFT is priced at $300, this NFT produces less CO2 per dollar than a cheap $15 t-shirt. (7) It’s clear that selling less NFTs for more money is a better alternative for the environment than selling physical merchandise. One of the flaws in Lemercier’s argument was that his data compared his CO2 output for his studio practice (when he was creating his NFT collection), which he described as “focused on projections of light in space” rather than producing many physical works. If Lemercier had produced many physical works that sold for the amount made from the NFT collection, they would have exceeded their regular CO2 output as well.


NFTs offer novel opportunities for a broad range of assets and authentication mechanisms that are an improvement from bearer bonds, titles, and certificates that are vulnerable to fraud. In the early days, we saw the insane hype from art NFTs that did not have any utility beyond investment speculation. However, I sense that fans now seek more from artists and NFTs. Besides the economic benefits to artists, NFTs are social coordination devices – they are ways to give, activate and engage an artist’s most loyal fans. This shifts the relationship between creator and fan – from a rental one with streaming and social media – to an ownership based one, where fans can have a piece of what they love (and possibly a stake in the success of the artist). This shift can speak volumes about who they (fans) are and their identity. As an artist, it personally means so much to me to know that my art makes an impact on others. And as a lover of music and art, having the ability to own a piece of work by an artist I love is something that I value greatly. However, to do this, an infrastructure with efficiency, flexibility and scale is required, and that’s where NFTs come in with the use of blockchain technology. 


Being outraged by NFTs is understandable, and outrage is a form of attention. But attention is a finite resource, and instead of not doing anything about the environmental crisis, we should be focusing on how we can push for improvements within the technologies that society benefits from. Knowing the potential harm that NFTs can do to the environment, I have decided, as an individual and as an artist, to do the following in my process of creating an NFT as sustainably as possible: 


Firstly, I am choosing a blockchain that runs on Proof-of-Stake (PoS) which greatly reduces the carbon footprint, as opposed to Proof-of-Work (PoW). Most NFTs are on the Ethereum blockchain; at the time of writing, Ethereum is moving towards PoS. Yes, this has been coming for what seems like a long time now (Ethereum’s founder Vitalik Buterin had the idea as early as 2013) and the delay has no doubt contributed to the cynicism of whether it would ever happen. Ethereum’s final PoS test was recently deemed a success and the switch is likely happen on September 15th 2022. (8)  Note that PoW and PoS are not the only options. There’s Proof of Good, Proof of Authority, etc. All mechanisms have trade-offs, whether it be security, scalability, decentralisation, energy use or accessibility. (9)


Secondly, I’m considering offsets. It’s important not to treat offsets as a shortcut around reduction. It’s also worth noting that the concept of the personal carbon footprint was in fact promoted by the oil company BP to push decarbonization on individuals and distract from the real polluters: oil companies. That said, everyone should consider their lifestyle/everyday choices to try to achieve a more positive outcome for the ecosystem overall. For me personally, I’ve been vegetarian for over a decade, and vegan for 5 years. I don’t own a motor vehicle as I take public transport or walk. I make my physical merchandise in small runs and as sustainably as possible. And as for touring? Well, the pandemic put an end to that for the last 3 years.


I understand the cynicism that comes with the hype around NFTs. However, the fact that there is such hype means that we are getting the engineering talent, the mindshare and financial capital to invest in improving and developing new technology that ultimately shapes the way we interact as societies. 





 The problem of (Ethereum) CryptoArt https://joanielemercier.com/the-problem-of-cryptoart/ 


CryptoArt.wtf https://cryptoart.wtf/ 


NFTs and Crypto Art: The Sky is not Falling https://sterlingcrispin.blogspot.com/2021/02/crypto-art-sky-is-not-falling.html 


Evaluating Sustainable Interaction Design of Digital Services: The Case of YouTube https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/publications/evaluating-sustainable-interaction-design-of-digital-services-the 


Is Our Obsession with Netflix, Spotify, and Other Streaming Services Harming the Planet? https://brightly.eco/environmental-impact-streaming/ 


The carbon footprint of vinyl records, CDs and music streaming https://expressiveaudio.com/blogs/audio-advent/audio-advent-day-1-the-environmental-impact-of-listening-to-music 


NFTs and Crypto Art: The Sky is not Falling https://sterlingcrispin.blogspot.com/2021/02/crypto-art-sky-is-not-falling.html 

(8) Ethereum’s big proof-of-stake blockchain switch could happen on September 15th https://www.theverge.com/2022/8/11/23301638/ethereum-crypto-blockchain-proof-of-stake-environment 


The Carbon Footprint of NFTs: Not All Blockchains Are Created Equal https://linuxfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/LFResearch_HL_NFT_Report_22Apr22_FINAL.pdf