art facing a matter of conscience

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Non-fungible tokens have caused a buying frenzy in early 2022. But they are based on blockchains, which spark debate about their ecological implications.


The art world has been in turmoil ever since it was discovered NFTnon-fungible tokens (non-fungible tokens). Kind of unofficial deeds, but registered online and inviolable, some have been sold for millions of dollars, such as some of the Bored Ape Yacht Club or CryptoPunk’s collections. The fever has dropped sharply, but interest remains high, online research on the subject shows.

However, NFTs raise many questions about their impact on the environment because, like cryptocurrencies, they are based on blockchains. Very often it is Ethereum, especially for the works that are available on the major sales platforms such as OpenSea or LooksRare.

A blockchain is a decentralized computer network secured by the collective work of computers distributed worldwide. Only this “work” sometimes requires a lot of electricity, as in the case of Ethereum. According to estimates by Digiconomist and acquired by the Ethereum Foundation, in 2021 this blockchain consumed up to 44.5 terawatt-hours per year, more than a state like Qatar. Why so much? Because the protocol is based on “proof of work”. gold” work certificate is a system based on a calculation competition “, Explains Jean-Paul Delahaye, professor of computer science at the University of Lille. The fastest validator (“mine”) gets a reward that encourages the development of the most computing power.

new protocols

Faced with proof of work, another protocol is put in place to reduce electricity consumption: proof of effort. It should soon be implemented on Ethereum (but the update is constantly delayed). You must have a certain number of blockchain tokens to be a validator on this type of protocol. This sum is placed in custody and the miners are selected randomly or proportionately according to the blocked amount to participate in the calculations and are then rewarded for their work. ” The power consumption is then comparable to using a video game on the internet or watching a movie in streamingexplains Jean-Paul Delahaye. Proof of effort is 1,000 times more economical than proof of work. »

However, professionals have reservations about the resulting level of security: ” Proof of work is not there to do after allli. [Elle] has, among other things, a great advantage in allowing a better decentralization of the network “, Writes on Twitter Claire Balva, blockchain director at KPMG France, about the Bitcoin protocol. The debate is not settled and creates strong resistance. In March, the European Union, by a margin of just 9 votes, rejected a bill that would have banned mining on a proof-of-work-type blockchain, following an outcry from the sector.

WWF vice versa

The NGO WWF has even withdrawn on NFTs. She had planned a collection of about 13 endangered species, which was to be launched in February. Men, ” before fundraising even began, the project sparked internet outrage from environmentalists worried about its CO2 footprint “, Says Peter Howson, Professor of International Development at Northumbria University, on the online media The Conversation. However, the NGO had made sure to design its NFTs on a blockchain that was known to be less energy consuming: Polygon. Only, it relies on the Ethereum network, as an overlay that would require less computing power. ” By supporting the craze in the NFT market, the collection could have raised the prices of Ethereumcontinues Peter Howson. This would have encouraged more proof-of-work mining and thus increased the network’s overall CO2 footprint. »

In summary, the environmental consequences of NFTs remain a point of contention, at least when they are directly or indirectly dependent on a proof-of-work blockchain, such as Ethereum. Other protocols, such as Solana or Tezos, which are already designed on evidence of effort, encounter less reluctance, but suffer during their youth and therefore under uncertainty as to their robustness. The NFTs that use it are available on the Solanart or Object platforms.

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