Under the Microscope: Conclusions on the Costs of Bitcoin

(@HassMcCook) | Published on July 19, 2014 at 12:50 GMT

Hass McCook is a chartered engineer and freshly minted Oxford MBA. He has been researching bitcoin over the past several months and recently joined the Lifeboat Foundation’s New Money Systems advisory board.

This, the final instalment in his five-part series, evaluates the relative sustainability of the bitcoin network against the costs of gold production, the printing and minting of physical currency and the legacy banking system.

money flying away

Under the Microscope has aimed to cast a critical eye over the social, environmental and economic impacts of the way we currently transact and transfer wealth, be it through legacy systems like gold and fiat currencies, or through newer digital cryptographic ones.

The series has also endeavoured to give readers a clearer idea of the human and environmental impacts associated with both current and future monetary systems, and allow them to draw their own conclusions on the relative sustainability of the old and new systems when viewed from a holistic “triple-bottom-line” approach.

Although it is not necessarily fair to compare bitcoin to the entire legacy banking system, there was doubt in the community about the impact of the legacy banking system, and thus, it has been quantified for completeness.

comparison of economic costs

Comparison of Environmental Costs table

It should be noted that the only thing involved in bitcoin mining is electricity use, and as the world moves towards clean and renewable energy, Bitcoin will have even less of an impact on the environment (See Koomey’s and Moore’s Laws). There is also much larger scope for energy efficiency improvements in integrated circuits and computing than there are in gold recycling.

comparison socioecon costs

As can be conclusively seen, the relative impact of the bitcoin network does not even register on the radar of the fiat and gold-based monetary systems, representing a very conservative relative environmental impact of just over 0.13%, and a relative economic impact of just under 0.04%. When one considers Koomey’s Law, we can expect energy/GH to continue to half every 18 months until 2048.

This means that we can expect our current industry best efficiency of 0.733 W/GH to reach 0.0000000873804 W/GH. Thus – armchair academics take note – in the event that bitcoin scales to a million times its current size and market cap over the next 30 years, it’s environmental impact will still be insignificant compared to existing systems.

When considering Moore’s Law, we can expect $/GH to continue to half every 18 months until at least 2020. When we consider the advent of decentralised emission-free renewable energy, we can expect tCO2/GH, and possibly even $/kWh, to tend towards zero.

The more agile and dynamic bitcoin companies can take advantage of these trends, but the sluggish, inert and over-encumbered incumbents simply cannot. As time goes on, bitcoin only becomes more sustainable, while legacy systems continue to bloat year-on-year.

There are no negative social externalities as a result of bitcoin proliferation, and any money laundering and shadow economy dealings that currently happen on the network will reduce drastically in proportion as adoption grows and regulations firm up on the on-and-off ramps into the bitcoin economy.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the crypto-currency space will take time to evolve to ensure that the issues faced and created by our legacy monetary systems do not continue to plague us for the next century and beyond.

It has been demonstrated that institutional fraud is a problem systemic to humans, and not to monetary systems. However, transactional fraud is only a problem in legacy systems due to the infallibility of the fact that 2 + 2 will always equal 4.

Although this paper has shied away from all of the ideological and philosophical debates surrounding bitcoin, what is clear is that the argument that bitcoin is superior monetary system – from the benefits and protections it provides to merchants and consumers, to the relative lack of negative impact it has on our planet and humanity in general – is a strong one.

The world is currently crippled by several issues, and the human race faces several existential threats such as climate change, the global ageing population demographic crisis and wealth and income inequality.

It is also unacceptable in 2014 to still have tens of millions of people forced into labour, and current monetary systems are somewhat responsible for several of the social ills brought about by corruption, money laundering and the black market.

For those who are willing to back their principles and morals with their money, bitcoin provides the opportunity for socially, environmentally and economically conscious global citizens to choose to no longer participate in the fragile and rotten legacy monetary system, and voluntarily participate in the open and wondrous bitcoin ecosystem.

Due to the several benefits and significantly reduced burden on our planet and society, there is a certain feeling of inevitability about digital currencies, whether it be bitcoin, or a future currency that proves to be even more sustainable and beneficial for humanity.

You can read Hass McCook's paper 'An Order-of-Magnitude Estimate of the Relative Sustainability of the Bitcoin Network' (on which this series is based) in full here.

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