Does a video put out by a Bitcoin mining company prove that their operation produces zero carbon emissions? No, that's not true: The video only demonstrates that a facility filled with computers doesn't produce smog like a factory might. The director of the Nebraska Governance and Technology Center says he hopes the social media videos being shared are either satire or sarcasm.
The claim appeared in a post and video on Twitter (archived here) published on April 10, 2023. The video was also posted to YouTube the same day. The posts say:
Bitcoin mining has zero carbon emissions.
This is what the post looked like on Twitter at the time of writing:
(Source: Twitter screenshot taken on Wed Apr 12 16:37:07 2023 UTC)
The unidentified person in the video walks around at what he says is the Riot Platforms operation in Rockdale, Texas. In his hand is an Aranet4 HOME air quality monitor that measures carbon dioxide level, temperature and relative humidity. It can be bought on the Aranet website for $249 and appears below side-by-side with an image from the video on Twitter:
(Source: Twitter/Aranet website screenshots taken on Wed Apr 12 20:04 2023 UTC)
As the narrator walks around the outside of the Bitcoin data mining facility, he takes a reading to establish a baseline for the carbon dioxide (CO2) level around the operation. It comes in at 455 parts per million (ppm). At the 40-second mark in the video, he says:
We're going to go inside the mining facility and we're going to see how much is this number going to go up. If the number does not go up, then the mining rigs are not emitting any CO2. If the number goes down, that would be interesting as well.
The narrator identifies the Rockdale operation as the "largest Bitcoin mining facility in the United States." Two carbon dioxide readings taken inside the facility were lower. The first one registered at 428 ppm. The second one came in at 452 ppm. At 2:33 into the video, he says:
This result makes me think that there might not be any CO2 coming out of the Bitcoin mining rig. I think the science is conclusive. The data shows Bitcoin mining does not emit any CO2.
The claim that "Bitcoin mining has zero carbon emissions" took Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, by surprise. The nonprofit's mission is "to help the world reach 'drawdown' -- the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline." Foley, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, has a doctorate in atmospheric sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, responded directly to the Riot Platforms tweet, saying:
Oh my god. Please, please, please tell me this is a joke.
If it isn't, I don't know what to say. You do know that the emissions of CO2 don't come from the computers -- but from the coal and gas plants powering your facility? 😳
The Riot Platforms videos came out on the same day the company posted a curt response to a New York Times (The NYT) article called "The Real-World Costs of the Digital Race for Bitcoin," published on April 9, 2023. The company's press release said:
[W]e were especially disappointed to read a false and distorted view of our Company and our industry in the Article published by The NYT. Worse still, The NYT chose to publish the Article with information its authors knew to be false and misleading, ignoring the factual information that we provided to them.
However, long before the Times article and the response by Riot Platforms, CO2 emissions and energy use by Bitcoin and other data mining operations have been a concern. The White House addressed it in a September 8, 2022, press release titled "FACT SHEET: Climate and Energy Implications of Crypto-Assets in the United States."
Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, a University of Nebraska College of Law professor and director of the Nebraska Governance and Technology Center, told Lead Stories in an April 12, 2023, email that "it's a bit tricky to know how to assess this video." He continued:
I hope it's a satirical response to the NY Times story that it is shared as a response to. That story has been interpreted to suggest that bitcoin mining facilities produce smoggy skies immediately around the mining facilities. In this respect, the video makes a fair, tongue-in-cheek, point. Bitcoin mining uses computers, which are powered by electricity and do not themselves produce CO2 directly. In this sense, they are just as zero-emission as an electric vehicle. As a response to an allegation that a bitcoin mining facility would turn the skies around it smoggy, the video makes a fair point. ...
My basic take on the video is that I hope it's satire and sarcasm. I can't believe that the company that produced it has such a flawed understanding of how computers work -- and the fact that it was shared in response to the NY Times story suggests that it was, in fact, a sarcastic response to that story. Of course, this is one of the challenges of the Internet: the video can be shared and viewed on its own, without that context. The video, seen without that context, certainly seems epically stupid. (To use a term of art.)
Lead Stories reached out to Riot Platforms to find out the intent of the video, and will update this story if a response is received.