The NFT gold rush had some independent creators striking it rich, but what’s less known is that the opportunity cryptoart provides also comes at a cost to the environment.
That’s why a new wave of digital artists and designers are building a movement to change that. With growing concerns over NFTs’ impact on the planet, many creators are opting to sell their art on eco-friendly or ‘clean’ NFT marketplaces instead, like Hic Et Nunc or Lovada. They’re also working together to raise awareness about the energy consumption of current mainstream NFT platforms and promoting alternatives that make cryptoart a more environmentally ethical medium. The question is whether these greener yet smaller marketplaces will ever become the norm.
There’s a lot of jargon that comes with learning about cryptoart, so what exactly is an NFT? An NFT, or non-fungible token, is a certificate of authenticity built on the blockchain, and represents a piece of digital artwork—whether that’s a jpg, a gif or even a tweet. While the ownership of that digital asset can be transferred by selling it, as Lovada’s website explains, an “NFT is provably scarce,” and can’t be replicated. If you’re saying to yourself, wait, what’s the point, can’t I just right-click and save any image onto my computer? You’re partially correct. The difference is that because NFTs are “minted,” or stored publicly on the blockchain, anyone can verify the real owner and creator. When it’s sold, the original artist gets a portion of the sale.
The bad news is because the majority of NFT marketplaces are built on Ethereum, a blockchain which uses an energy-hungry process called Proof of Work to keep cryptocurrency transactions secure, they also contribute to its massive carbon footprint—making digital art part of crypto’s climate problem. How? A Proof of Work (PoW) system relies on many computers quickly solving or “mining” complex algorithms to prevent bad actors from interfering in transactions, since blockchain technology doesn’t use a third party, like a bank. Solving these algorithmic puzzles requires very powerful computers, and therefore demands a lot of energy. (In Ethereum’s case, as much as the entire country of Libya).
Some in the tech industry are looking into more sustainable blockchain alternatives. One such person is Matt Lockyer, a developer who’s been working on crypto and blockchain projects since early 2017. Lockyer joined an IDEO CoLab-backed alternative to Ethereum, called NEAR Protocol, as developer relations director in 2020. NEAR applies carbon offsets to remain climate neutral, and uses an alternate Proof of Stake (PoS) model, which verifies transactions through a drastically less energy intensive validation process than mining. “When you create NFTs on a Proof of Stake chain, very little computation is used, therefore the environmental impact is significantly lower,” says Lockyer. The bottom line is that alternative networks using PoS demand less energy (though part of the hesitancy to transition among miners is because there’s also less money to be made in smaller PoS marketplaces, and they may be less secure.)
Digital artist Michelle Brown initially saw NFTs as an opportunity to sell some of her artwork created with virtual reality and augmented reality, rather than just posting it on Instagram. But Brown stopped minting NFTs on Ethereum-based platforms and moved her work to marketplaces that use Proof of Stake after reading about Ethereum's energy issues published by fellow technology artist Memo Akten, and speaking with the team at Offsetra, who run Carbon.fyi, a website that lets users calculate the CO2 footprint of any Ethereum address.
Together with a group of other like-minded digital artists and technologists, Brown launched cleanNFTs.org along with a Discord server to discuss, educate and ideate on ways to improve the environmental impacts of releasing NFTs. “Our mission has always been to support other artists with sharing information, research, updates, resources and is a place just to ask questions and share concerns,” Brown says. Since February 2021, the volunteer-run initiative has grown its Discord community to 3400+ members, produced virtual exhibitions to showcase artists using Ethereum alternatives, and hosted and participated in online discussions and panels.
One of the key purposes of the CleanNFT Discord server is to create a more nuanced conversation around the emerging technology and to find common ground amidst the current polarizing discussions online. “You’ve got anti-NFT folks on one side and crypto evangelists on the other side and we’re in the center trying to just talk about it and learn together,” says Jose Andres, one of Brown’s collaborators. “As artists we’re interested in engaging with this new technology but we want to be as environmentally conscious as we can while doing it, and keeping a critical eye on it as it evolves.” Andres encourages active NFT artists to join their Discord but also welcomes those who are crypto-curious and skeptics as well.
While it’s possible to help curb Proof of Work energy consumption through carbon offsets, the CleanNFT community is advocating for a shift away from platforms using Proof of Work (like Ethereum) to Proof of Stake networks (like NEAR, Tezos, or a variety of other options). There’s even a marketplace called DoinGud that lets artists transfer a portion of each sale to social impact organizations of their choice in hopes of “reimagining the creator and giving economy.”
Despite the hype over NFTs, crypto art as a visual medium and a digital commodity is still in its infancy, along with other developments like web3 and metaverse. Andres says it will take time to raise enough awareness to encourage artists to adopt PoS, especially if they’ve already found success selling on Ethereum. “I don't want to be exclusionary to folks who do work on Ethereum-based platforms because there’s a lot of innovation that happens there. I’m hoping that people will siphon that creativity from the Ethereum ecosystem into other open source networks because having more options means Ethereum will be less of a monopoly.”
While the most popular platforms like, NiftyGateway, Superrare, and Zora all run on Ethereum, some mainstream platforms like OpenSea and Rarible offer PoS options as well as a hybrid solution of sorts called Polygon, which is a more eco-friendly secondary framework built on top of Ethereum’s current blockchain. This allows artists to sell on a mainstream marketplace without significantly contributing to Etherium’s carbon footprint. There are also dozens of new marketplaces utilizing Tezos, including the popular ad-free grassroots “anti-platform” Hic Et Nunc, which relaunched as an open source version after the original was discontinued last year.
The trend towards Proof of Stake seems to be gaining traction. Ethereum announced that it will be transitioning to a PoS model early this year, which, according to Joseph Pallant, Founder and Executive Director of Blockchain for Climate Foundation, will drastically reduce its energy consumption. “Proof of Work wastes electricity fundamentally by design. When Ethereum switches to PoS, its emissions will be 99% less than they are right now, and that’s really exciting,” he says. Still Michelle Brown says the public needs to keep pressure on Ethereum to commit to their transition plans, as it's been in the works for years but a release date for Ethereum 2.0 has yet to be confirmed. “I think everyone is really hoping that the switch to PoS will come ASAP,” she says. “The sooner the better for our planet’s sake.”