Bill Gates, fresh off making headlines for suggesting the world should eat 100 percent synthetic beef, is now beefing with a new target: bitcoin.
Gates, the Microsoft cofounder and chair of the investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures, recently said in a live-streamed Clubhouse session that bitcoin guzzles up a concerning amount of energy.
“Bitcoin uses more electricity per transaction than any other method known to mankind, and so it’s not a great climate thing,” Gates told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin. (You can hear Gates’s comments on bitcoin starting around the 33-minute mark in the video below.)
In the broad sense, Gates isn’t making an especially egregious claim. A quick refresher: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency—a shared, encrypted, publicly available form of money made by building links in a longer and longer blockchain code. Blockchain refers to the collective record (called a ledger) that stores cryptocurrency transactions, like a communal Excel spreadsheet.
This record is stored on volunteers’ computers, which run software that verifies transactions, checking to make sure that both parties agreed to the change and the buyer has enough currency to honor it. These volunteers are called miners, and the reward for volunteering their hardware is kickbacks in the form of more cryptocurrency.
If enough computers conclude that yes, this is a valid exchange, that verification joins the rest of the world’s recent transactions as a “block.” To prevent people from generating counterfeit currency, the math required to verify a transaction takes so much computing power that no one user or group could do it.
“Bitcoin uses more electricity per transaction than any other method known to mankind.” – Bill Gates
People “mine” bitcoin, then, by tasking computers to process complicated math, usually in the background on real users’ computers or even on dedicated machines. Miners use high-end graphics cards, or GPUs, because these pieces of hardware are already made to churn through computer math as quickly as possible and with a lot of calculations running at the same time. Like a highway with more lanes, this reduces congestion and travel time. It also heats up your PC, usually requiring high-end fans to match.
Scientists from the University of Cambridge Judge Business School recently built an interactive analysis tool to calculate the real energy cost of bitcoin cryptocurrency. Using their energy use model, the researchers found that bitcoin mining uses more energy each year (130.00 terrawat hours [TWh]) than the entire country of Argentina (125.03 TWh).
According to the BBC, Cambridge’s tool also ranked Bitcoin’s electricity consumption above that of the Netherlands (108.8 TWh) and the United Arab Emirates (113.20 TWh). (The tool counts mining activity and cross-references users’ locations to make a heat map of energy use by all bitcoin miners.)
In response, industry researchers have pushed back, claiming bitcoin uses just 2.3 percent of digital tech emissions. While that’s a fair claim, no one is making anyone use bitcoin, compared with technology usage that underlies infrastructure, for example, or public utilities. What if just one optional transaction each year used 2.3 percent of the total by itself? Where do we draw the line?
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