“Bitcoin is the World’s Hottest Currency, but No One’s Using It,” the Wall Street Journal proclaimed on Saturday. The day prior, the digital currency had surged past $10,000 per coin—and then past $11,000, too. But despite Bitcoin’s value, the paper explained, brick and mortar stores have been slow to accept it as a method of payment. Thus, some observers are becoming pessimistic about whether this tech-hipster cryptocurrency, which everyone has heard of but most people don’t truly understand, will ever replace traditional currency. “I don’t think it will be a currency,” bitcoin investor Alex Compton told the Journal. “If people use it as a currency, it will lose value as an investment.”
No one may be using Bitcoin, but we’re all paying for them. Bitcoin analyst Alex de Vries, otherwise known as the Digiconomist, reports that the coin’s surge caused its estimated annual energy consumption to increase from 25 terawatt hours in early November to 30 TWh last week—a figure, wrote Vox’s Umair Irfan, “on par with the energy use of the entire country of Morocco, more than 19 European countries, and roughly 0.7 percent of total energy demand in the United States, equal to 2.8 million U.S. households.” (As of Monday, the figure had reached nearly 32 KWh.) Just one transaction can use as much energy as an entire household does in a week, and there are about 300,000 transactions every day. That energy demand is more often than not met through fossil fuel energy sources, which, along with polluting air and water, emit greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
In other words, Bitcoins are contributing to the warming of the atmosphere without providing a significant public benefit in return. Some Bitcoin enthusiasts claim that it will eventually become a mainstream currency, and that the cryptogovernance system upon which it’s built could actually help the environment. But the Bitcoin market is volatile, its future murky. We only have 32 years left for carbon emissions to peak and then rapidly decrease, if our planet is to remain livable. We don’t have time or resources to waste on Bitcoin.
Unlike cash, a Bitcoin cannot be printed or otherwise “made” by a human. They exist solely in digital form. In order to create one, a computer must access the Bitcoin network and solve a complicated math problem, a process known as “mining.” But there are a finite number of Bitcoins that can be mined—21 million, to be exact—and as more Bitcoins are mined, the math problems get more challenging. Thus, computers must work harder—that is, process more information—in order to solve the problem and mine a Bitcoin. (This Bitcoin can then be sold and re-sold online.)