Bitcoin mining in China will outstrip the energy consumption of European countries by 2024, scientists say, warning that the industry threatens climate change goals.
The process of "mining" the cryptocurrency, which involves powerful computers verifying transactions by solving puzzles, is energy-intensive and in China has a significant carbon footprint because many of the miners are in areas dependent on coal for energy.
The study, by academics at Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and published in the journal Nature Communications, predicted that the energy usage of the Bitcoin blockchain would peak in 2024 at almost 297 terawatt-hours and generate 130.50 million metric tons of carbon emissions.
This would mean the industry ranks 12th in the world in terms of energy usage, ahead of Italy, Saudi Arabia and Spain, and just below the UK. It would also become more carbon-intensive than countries including Nigeria, Belgium and Qatar.
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The authors suggest encouraging miners to move to areas dependent instead on hydro-electricity, warning that allowing the industry to continue unchecked could threaten climate goals that China has committed to meet under the Paris Agreement.
"Without any policy interventions, the carbon emission pattern of the Bitcoin blockchain will become a non-negligible barrier against the sustainability efforts of China.
"The intensive Bitcoin blockchain operation in China can quickly grow as a threat that could potentially undermine the emission reduction effort taking place in the country," the paper says.
Bitcoin mining and its use by "green" companies such as electric car manufacturer Tesla has previously come under fire from critics due to its energy intensity.
Last month Cambridge University academics said that the industry takes up more energy than Argentina, as its value hit a record high. It is still at close to peak levels.
China's economy is currently heavily dependent on coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, but it is aiming to make 2020 its peak consumption year, and it has committed to carbon neutrality by 2060.