This Saturday sees the first drop of “green” non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

A group of digital artists, including the scene’s leading celebrity, Beeple, will showcase a selection of blockchain-backed works that have been specially formatted so as to reduce their environmental footprint.

All proceeds from the CarbonDrop sale go towards the Open Earth Foundation, a project spun out of Yale University that uses a range of technologies, including blockchain, to begin to realistically account for carbon in our atmosphere.  

This collaborative effort also involves input from RNDR, a system that incentivizes idle compute power to help render digital media effects like CGI, and Nifty Gateway, an NFT marketplace owned by Gemini, the cryptocurrency exchange founded by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss.

It has not taken long for the explosion of interest in NFTs (title deeds to certain digital artifacts created using shared ledgers) to spotlight the putative environmental impact associated with mining crypto tokens. 

Within the cryptocurrency community, questions about the environmental damage caused by algorithmic mining invoke eye-rolling, from Bitcoin and even some Ethereum fans. Indeed, to many crypto purists “green NFTs” combine the sort of misplaced environmental whinging they would rather ignore.

The reality, like much else in the climate debate, is complex and nuanced

For Martin Wainstein, founder of the Open Earth Foundation, the fact that NFT artists have taken a firm and immediate stand provides a great way to raise awareness, and also to drive collaboration.

NFT art creation has highlighted the problem, but it’s not the problem per se, Wainstein points out. Rather, that’s the computational load of running smart contracts on Ethereum or the very large-scale proof-of-work mining that secures Bitcoin.  

“I think it’s fascinating that for the last four years, you haven’t seen a single investor or innovator saying, ‘Oh, I love this, but I’m not going to touch Bitcoin because of the energy consumption,’” Wainstein said. “But as soon as it touches art, it kind of blows up.”

The relationship between NFTs and Ethereum with regards to energy consumption seems to be a source of confusion.

“The thing that’s not really being talked about is that the Ethereum blockchain is gonna move with or without you. Like blocks happen and they’re full 100% of the time,” said RNDR Project Lead Joshua Bijak, whose background is in environmental electrical engineering. “It doesn’t matter if those are NFT transactions, it can be ERC-20 tokens or whatever. So it’s unfair to blame NFTs specifically for that.”

Open Earth's approach

The steps being taken by the collaborators behind Saturday’s carbon-neutral NFT sale include lessening the number of Ethereum blockchain events needed to individualize each digital artwork, meaning less computational workload in the NFT minting process. 

“For the purpose of this auction, we’re trying to minimize how many deployments there will be,” Bijak said, explaining that switching out from the “open editions” variety of NFT contracts removes the tendency to mint tokens ad nauseam.

Additionally, each NFT artwork (there are six digital artists featured in the show), will have another one-of-a-kind token pinned to it, and this second NFT represents carbon credits from a voluntary registry of a Peruvian deforestation project.

It’s worth noting that Nifty Gateway came under pressure to streamline its minting process, which is now being addressed. 

Bijak points out this is now a highly sensitive area and even clear and reasonable attempts to minimize the relationship between NFTs and carbon emissions can cause consternation. 

An example would be the tweeted medium post from NFT platform SuperRare, which was welcomed by many but also resulted in some backlash and artists saying they would be leaving the platform.

The artists

Nature-inspired artist and composer Sara Ludy, whose work forms part of CarbonDrop, said she has been conscious about the cost of rendering digital work before the recent NFT wave highlighted artists’ concerns.

“Ecological concerns have been a part of my work for quite a while,” Ludy said. “It’s an awareness that I try to implement in my own practice, and also when I was teaching experimental 3D virtual reality applications, to be ecologically aware of your computer usage.”

Award-winning multi-disciplinary artist Kyle Gordon, who is also part of the show, said he expects to see NFT platforms coming under pressure in the coming months to implement other systems that will help with energy use. 

“At the end of the day, minting NFTs might not directly be the source of the energy usage, but by facilitating and encouraging the energy usage, it is part of the problem, part of a larger problem,” said Gordon. “While it’s really complicated, the key is collaboration.”

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