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Bitcoin emits as much carbon as Las Vegas, researchers say

Cryptocurrency: Virtual Money, Real Power
Cryptocurrency: Virtual money, real power and the fight for a small town's future 20:53
  • Bitcoin mining and processing emits as much planet-heating carbon dioxide as a city the size of Las Vegas or the country of Sri Lanka, a new study estimates.
  • Acquiring the virtual currency takes a lot of computing power -- many of the facilities where it's generated are located in Asia and use electricity from coal.
  • Bitcoin is starting to be accepted by some major retailers, but still makes up a tiny fraction of worldwide payments.

Bitcoin is responsible for the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as a city like Las Vegas or Hamburg, and it's time to consider how to reduce its climate footprint, researchers said Thursday.

A study by researchers at the Technical University of Munich and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examined how much power is consumed by computers used to generate bitcoins and process transactions.

Writing in the journal Joule, researchers said they then combined the results with the carbon emissions from electricity production in the countries where the computers were located.

They concluded that, in late 2018, the entire bitcoin network was responsible for 22-22.9 million tons of CO2 per year — similar to a large Western city or an entire developing country like Sri Lanka. Total global emissions of the greenhouse gas from the burning of fossil fuels were about 37 billion tons last year.

"There are bigger factors contributing to climate change," said Christian Stoll, one of the study's authors. "However, the carbon footprint is big enough to make it worth discussing the possibility of regulating cryptocurrency mining in regions where power generation is especially carbon-intensive." 

The process of generating, or mining, a bitcoin involves solving a series of complex mathematical problems, which takes a lot of computing power. According to some estimates, more than half of the power used for bitcon resides in China, which still relies heavily on coal for electricity.

How blockchain works 01:51

The Joule study found that about 68% of the computing power used to generate bitcoins is in Asia, 17% is in Europe and 15% is in North America.

Alex de Vries, a bitcoin researcher who wasn't involved in the study, questioned whether the method used to determine the location of computers was reliable enough. But he said the emission figures were consistent with those he had calculated using a different method, and could even be on the low end.

"The folks in this study were very conservative on the energy side," he told The Associated Press.

Previous studies have put bitcoin's energy use even higher. Researchers writing in Nature Climate Change last year warned that large-scale bitcoin mining could push the Earth's climate past the 2-degree warming limit that scientists say must be observed to avoid irreversible damage.

Bitcoin uses more energy than many nations, report finds 00:54

The environmental impact of bitcoin—the most popular virtual currency—is growing as a concern, especially since its adoption has been limited. Still, a few big-name retailers, including Whole Foods, Lowe's, Nordstrom, Ulta and Bed Bath & Beyond have started accepting bitcoin as payment. Facebook is also expected to launch its own cryptocurrency later this year.

Last year the bitcoin network processed about 81 million transactions, compared to 500 billion transactions handled by the regular global banking system, said de Vries.

"If you look at the carbon footprint per transaction, that's where the real shock is," said de Vries, estimating it at about 271 kilograms of CO2 per transaction — or several hundred times that of a standard credit card payment. "That's insane."

-- CBS News' Irina Ivanova contributed reporting.

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