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A Guide to Ecofriendly CryptoArt (NFTs)

An entanglement of shapes and lines
Still from Memo Atken’s Uncanny-Valley. With permission from the author.

This article is for the adventurous artist who wants to create and sell CryptoArtworks (or NFTs) on the blockchain using sustainable platforms. It is not a comprehensive guide, and the information is likely to go out of date very quickly, since the field is moving so rapidly.

For more up-to-date information, please see the Clean-NFTs discord, the Clean-NFTs Developer Community spreadsheet, and cleannfts.org.

Introduction

The CryptoArt NFT Market (i.e. selling digital art on the blockchain) is worth at least $600M—and this excludes some of the largest marketplaces like opensea.io. This figure is also quite heavily skewed of course, with the top artists earning the most.

Selling work on a blockchain can be a technically challenging task. For this reason, many platforms and websites have emerged aiming to make this process as seamless and easy as possible for artists. Unfortunately, many of these websites are based on the Ethereum (ETH) blockchain, which is very inefficient and ecologically costly by design. For example, selling just a single-edition artwork on Ethereum has a carbon footprint starting at around 100 KgCO2—equivalent to a 1 hour flight—and depending on the platform, the emissions can reach those of a long-haul flight. Selling an edition of 100 works has a carbon footprint of over 10 tonnes CO2, which is more than the per capita annual footprint of someone in the EU—including all emissions from industry and trade.

Selling an edition of 100 works has a carbon footprint of over 10 tonnes CO2, which is more than the per capita annual footprint of someone in the EU—including all emissions from industry and trade.

But there are more sustainable routes emerging. As the CryptoArt NFT market is exploding in a gold-rush style free-for-all, there is a lack of clear information on the ecological impact of different approaches to NFTs. The purpose of this guide is to help CryptoArtists who are interested in exploring more sustainable alternatives. Currently, the more sustainable platforms do not have the volume of their unsustainable counterparts, the Ethereum-based platforms. For this reason, collectors and sales are likely to be significantly lower on the more sustainable alternatives. However, hopefully as more artists navigate this topic, this can encourage platforms, developers, investors and collectors to develop more ecologically friendly and transparent platforms.

We are also hoping the platforms themselves will be more transparent on the matter.

We are also hoping the platforms themselves will be more transparent on the matter and that we can eventually retire this document. However, at the time of writing, not a single platform has publicly acknowledged the issue on their website. When they do, the relevant links will be included below.

Glossary

To better understand the issues, we would like to introduce these concepts in an incredibly brief manner.

  • Blockchain: A decentralized database. The technicalities of this are not relevant for our discussion. What is important to know, however, is that there are many different blockchains (e.g. Bitcoin, Ethereum, Cardano, Algorand, Polkadot etc), and usually, each blockchain has its own (crypto)currency.
  • Cryptocurrency: Magic internet money. Bitcoin (BTC) is the most well known cryptocurrency and the oldest. Ethereum (ETH) is another well known cryptocurrency (and the basis for most current CryptoArt platforms). There are thousands of other cryptocurrencies. Typically small volume cryptocurrencies are collectively known as altcoins.
  • CryptoArt: Art registered on the blockchain. I.e. Media is associated with an NFT. See also: What is cryptoart?
  • NFT: Non-Fungible Token. A unique token (i.e. long number or string) that is associated with some media (e.g. image, video, poem, whatever) or any unique asset, such as a house, property etc which has its ID or file registered specifically to one block on the blockchain. Detailed description.
  • Smart Contract: A fancy way of saying “a program that lives and runs on the blockchain”. Smart contracts are what create and keep track of NFTs, ASAs, Dapps etc. Some of these types of contracts can be legally binding.
  • Minting an NFT: The act of ‘creating’ an NFT, i.e. registering the token on the blockchain, and associating it with your media (e.g. file).
  • NFT Platform / Marketplace: A website which allows people to buy & sell NFTs. Think ebay or Amazon, except it uses a blockchain in the background.
  • Gas fee: A fee one must pay, usually paid by the seller such as the artist, to be able to publish or mint on Ethereum. Think of it as an ebay listing fee. This fee doesn’t go to the platform, but to Ethereum to compensate for the computing energy required to process and validate transactions. Currently Ethereum gas fees are very high and fluctuate (e.g. >$100-$1000) with network congestion. Some days and times are dramatically less or more due to current on-chain demand. There are some existing and work-in-progress solutions discussed in the next section.
  • Wallet: A blockchain analog for a bank account on the blockchain, which contains your cryptocurrency. Different cryptocurrencies often require different wallets. Without going into too much detail, usually this is a piece of software, hardware, or browser extension which gives you a private seed—typically a bunch of random words, like “red fox banana submarine tutu”. This is like your password for the wallet, which you should keep safe and never share with anyone! It also gives a corresponding ‘hashed’ version (e.g. 17ah2k25djhsa7974) which is your public facing wallet address, which is like an IBAN, so it’s what you share with others to get paid or trade.
  • Consensus Algorithm: The algorithm that underlies the blockchain. Details of this are irrelevant for this guide, except to say that Proof-of-Work (PoW) is the consensus algorithm that is hundreds of times more inefficient than the other ones (deliberately so) and unfortunately, it is also the one which is the most common today.

What’s needed for ecofriendly CrytoArt

The following would be great to see from CryptoArt and NFT platforms regarding sustainability:

  • A statement of values
  • A commitment to transparency, communication and guidance for CryptoArtists
  • A roadmap with specific actions, e.g. alternate chains, side chains, lazy minting, layer 2 scaling which are currently in the process of supporting. Including bounties to “proof of stake” chains and wallets to create a solution to “proof of work”, etc. Roadmaps should be more than “we hope ETH2 will resolve the issue when it’s released in a year or two.”
  • A donation of proceeds to carbon credits or to subsidize the ecological footprint and their direct environmental impact

Ways to make it better

If still using Ethereum, here are some of the ways to improve the carbon footprint of NFTs:

  • Lazy minting: This is not necessarily dramatically better, around 2x, or maybe 3x less carbon footprint. This is done by not creating an NFT until its first purchase.
  • Sidechains: NFTs are minted on non-Ethereum PoS sidechains but can be moved onto Ethereum later. If they are not moved, they can be hundreds times more efficient.
  • Bridges: Are specifically for making one blockchain ecosystem compatible with another blockchain. This can also be referred to as interoperability and allows chains to interact which otherwise cannot. The advantage of this is you can go from ETH to another less impactful chain without loosing the data minted.
  • Various Layer 2 (L2) scaling optimizations: Can be up to 100x more efficient.

Instead of Ethereum, one can also use other blockchains. This can be up to hundreds of times better for the environment in terms of carbon footprint. Some of these chains include Algorand, Tezos, Polkadot, Hedera Hashgraph, and other proof-of-stake networks.

NFT Platforms & Marketplaces

These are the websites that you would use to upload, ‘mint’ and sell your works. For sake of simplicity, we can say that from an ecological perspective, Ethereum which uses proof of work, is the worst (unless sidechains or L2 scaling is implemented).

Platforms using different blockchains (e.g. using PoS, PoA etc) will generally be hundreds times more efficient. For those wishing to not incur the immense footprints of Ethereum, look for—and support—alternatives. Sales may be lower for now (see the Risks section at the end). This document doesn’t aim to give advice, instead it is a first step in collecting this information in one place.

Hopefully if there is enough demand for sustainable and transparent platforms, this can encourage developers, investors and collectors to invest in and develop these more ecologically friendly alternatives and grow the market. And hopefully the community can provide more feedback in the issues.

Risks

Cryptocurrencies are notoriously volatile, and their values can dramatically fall or rise. For example, if you sell a NFT for 1 ETH, which is currently worth ~$1600, the value of ETH could later drop to a few hundred dollars in a few months or even in a few weeks (alternatively, it could rise to two or three thousand $$ too).

This becomes potentially even more risky (or potentially more rewarding) with cryptocurrencies that have a much smaller market cap (e.g. NEAR, XTZ, AVAX etc), which could die and drop to zero (or go to the moon) in a few weeks.

Please act responsibly. Seek financial advice if need be, preferably not from YouTube, TikTok, Elon Musk or Chamath Palihapitiya.

The smaller blockchains are likely to have fewer collectors. So expect smaller sales on these platforms; although, as more people start to use these blockchains for NFTs the prices will likely rise with demand.

About the authors

This article is an excerpt from the Github repo, A Guide to Ecofriendly CryptoArt (NFTs). It is a collective effort from many people including: Memo Akten, Primavera De Filippi, Joanie Lemercier, Addie Wagenknecht, Mat Dryhurst, Sutu_eats_flies, everybody in the Clean-NFTs discord and many more. The authors keep the information up to date via pull-requests and issues.

Further reading