Coronavirus might be the biggest story of the decade, but climate change will be the grand narrative of the century.
As energy of any kind becomes of premium value to the planet, and the world’s transport systems come onto the electric grid, how will notoriously energy-hungry processes like bitcoin fare?
In financial services, environmental, social and governance (ESG) is becoming the new buzzword among impact-minded corporations. An example of this was the latest letter from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink promising a fundamental reshaping of finance.
Bitcoin, although it’s also about fundamentally reshaping finance, has earned a bad reputation when it comes to energy use, thanks to the vast number of specially-designed computers needed to carry out its mining process.
How you choose to interpret bitcoin’s energy consumption depends on your perspective. Bitcoin supporters might point out that PlayStation, for instance, uses up about as much power as the Bitcoin network, according to research by Bitwise Asset Management. The reinvention of money, they’ll add, is a much loftier goal than playing FIFA 20.
On the other hand, the Greta Thunberg generation may question what appears to be just another financial trading instrument – but one that consumes as much electricity as Chile, a country with 18 million people.
The recent meltdown in markets caused by coronavirus raises other questions about bitcoin’s place in the world. Bitcoin, sometimes described as “digital gold,” was always seen as a safe haven for investors, un-correlated as it was with the rest of the financial system. But the coronavirus shock saw bitcoin fall even more precipitously than the stock market. Its recent ebbs and flows have mirrored that of the S&P 500.
As economist and author Frances Coppola puts it: “If bitcoin can no longer be used as digital gold, what can it be used for?”
Wall Street’s cold feet
Some would argue the gradual encroachment of institutional money into bitcoin as a high-yielding alternative asset class comes with its own cost: a newfound correlation with the rest of the financial system.
Indeed, there has been an assumption from some quarters of the crypto world that it’s only a matter of time until swathes of institutional investment will flow into bitcoin. This will follow as the network becomes more regulated, they say, and things like dedicated exchange-traded funds (ETFs) emerge.
But with a firm focus on ESG among institutional investors of any real size, that may not happen after all, at least not at anything like the scale once predicted.
“I think bitcoiners are very much hoping in the future that institutional investors will put their money in bitcoin,” said Alex de Vries, blockchain specialist at PwC. “But it's very unlikely that shareholders of those institutions will allow companies to invest in high-carbon assets.”
It’s not easy to take the temperature of large-scale buyside when it comes to crypto. When CoinDesk asked some of the largest investment firms if ESG concerns might be a factor regarding bitcoin as a hedge, most of them declined to comment.
However, one of the largest retirement funds in the U.S., which asked not to be named, said simply: “Things like bitcoin don’t fit into our portfolio.”
Within the confines of crypto, the question of ESG in relation to bitcoin does occasionally come up but it's relatively rare, said Matt Hougan, global head of research at Bitwise Asset Management.
“I would say it comes up in one out of every 20 serious conversations,” he said.
However, Hougan conceded ESG is certainly the topic du jour, and he expects to hear it mentioned more often.
“I fully agree that ESG has entered a sort of new era in 2020. It's the combination of Larry Fink's letter, of the Australia wildfires, the California wildfires, Greta's popularity. I do think it’s top of mind. I've overheard ESG investing conversations in coffee shops here in the U.S., which I've never done in the past,” Hougan said.
That said, it’s probably fair to say the bitcoin community, for the most part, is not too concerned about environmental issues.
For example, Meltem Demirors, chief strategy officer of crypto-focused investment firm CoinShares, pointed out that ESG and environmental sustainability tends to come in cycles; it was a big topic 10 years ago, then it died down and now it's big again, she said.
“Historically, ESG had sort of been a backwater of investing, where you got sent if you weren't fit for front office,” said Demirors. “It was sort of this niche hippie topic for bleeding-heart liberals and there were certain connotations with ESG that it was largely bullshit.”
ESG warriors perhaps share some similarities with the crypto community: Both are growing and passionate movements, and both could be viewed as extremists by the mainstream financial services sector.
And though some ESG fans see the value in blockchain for being able to track global supply chains, the goodwill does not extend to bitcoin itself.
Lauren Compere, director of shareowner engagement at Boston Common Management, a majority-employee-owned and woman-led investment firm with over $20 billion in assets under management, said millennials and post-millennials want to track how a particular T-shirt is made, for example, or check its provenance using a slavery app.
“I think from an ESG perspective, they are also looking at, ‘How does something like bitcoin fit into the ecosystem?’” said Compere. “What kind of impact does it have on things like climate? Is it a contributor? Is it an enabler?”
Brett Wayman, VP of impact investing at Envestnet, a provider of software to financial advisors, said it’s a question of deciding if the benefit of cryptocurrency as a separate asset class outweighs the negatives of the environmental impacts of Proof-of-Work (PoW) consensus mechanisms.
“Right now I think the environmental impact is pretty extensive. I do think that bitcoin is an interesting investment. But from an energy usage standpoint, my understanding is that it will only become more and more energy-intensive to mine some of these currencies,” said Wayman.
(That likely doesn’t hold for cryptocurrencies based on the less-mining-intensive Proof-of-Stake (PoS), which includes the forthcoming overhaul of Ethereum, the second-largest crypto by market cap.)
Martin Vezer, manager of thematic research at Sustainalytics, which is 40 percent owned by Morningstar, said there are clear environmental concerns when a coin relies on mining, which can be quite energy- and carbon-intensive depending on where the electricity is coming from.
“A fundamental question for investors to consider is whether a cryptocurrency is a commodity that actually adds value. In the early trends that we see, a lot of people appear to be buying and selling cryptocurrency as a short-term bet rather than a long-term investment. Sure, this gamble has paid off for some, but others have lost money,” said Vezer.
Responsible investors typically look for long-term opportunities with a clear value proposition rather than a short-term betting opportunity, Vezer added. “They weigh the environmental and social risks associated with an asset before adding it to their portfolio,” he said.
While much of the data is based on estimates, it’s thought that close to 75 percent of bitcoin mining is fuelled by renewable energy.
Bitcoin miners are nomadic and will migrate to the cheapest sources of energy. Over half of all bitcoin mining takes place in China’s Sichuan province, which has excessive hydropower capacity.
The portability of bitcoin mining rigs allow for interesting innovations such as consuming wasted energy from oil wells. In such cases, trapped gas is vented into the atmosphere or burnt off by flare towers because it’s not deemed worthwhile to capture and transport.
Steve Barbour, the founder of Upstream Data, which operates bitcoin mines on oil fields in Canada, has even described bitcoin mining as a “conservation machine.” The vented gas fuels a generator that the mining computers are plugged into. It’s a relatively low capital expenditure for an oil company, said Barbour, especially when presented with the prospect of future BTC returns.
Upstream Data is planning bitcoin mining trials with Canadian Natural Resources, a Toronto Stock Exchange-listed oil and gas producer that reported over $21 billion in revenue last year, Barbour told CoinDesk.
“What we are doing with bitcoin mining reduces venting of methane into the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s an example of how an ESG narrative around bitcoin is at least incomplete.”
However, Martin Wainstein of the Yale Open Climate project, an advocate of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology generally, said he remains skeptical of such “green” endeavors.
“Even though they have gotten very creative to be energy efficient at sources where you have waste, bitcoin is out of control and doesn't work the way it was designed for,” said Wainstein. “I think the climate problem will force bitcoin to self-regulate or reconfigure itself.”