A group of crypto enthusiasts now have a transparent frog recently discovered in Ecuador named after them. CAD namesa decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) that uses the Ethereum blockchain, has won the right to name a new species of glass frog after funding the Rainforest Trust’s conservation efforts in the amphibian’s natural habitat.
But the large carbon footprint of cryptocurrency mining calls into question the real impact that crypto initiatives, even those that may be conservation-minded, can have on the environment. The crypto-mining industry already has a carbon footprint comparable to some countries, an impact that is expected to increase if no action is taken.
“Having creative solutions for conservation is really important, especially these days,” says Rebecca Brunner, a University of California, Berkeley biologist who helped describe the new glass frog. “I’m very grateful to Nouns DAO for doing this, but I really hope that if crypto continues to be a phenomenon, it will be reassessed in the context of climate change and conservation.”
Crypto donations that fund environmental causes simultaneously use a mechanism that consumes huge amounts of energy and produces tons of electronic waste, which only pushes our climate goals even further out of reach. DAOs are crypto communities built on blockchain technology that form for a common mission and are governed by its members. Members pool their crypto assets and vote on how to use them. One of the most famous examples is the now defunct Constitution DAOwho attempted to purchase an original copy of the US Constitution, but ultimately failed.
Nouns DAO is made up of people who own noun NFTs. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are unique, non-replicable digital assets that are bought and sold online, primarily with the Ethereum cryptocurrency. These transactions are recorded on the blockchain, which serves as an online ledger. Every digital asset is almost invariably tied to another asset that mostly lives off the blockchain. In the case of DAO names, a new NFT is auctioned every 24 hours and each NFT is equal to one vote. For the proposal to pool funds to name the new species of glass frog, 27 members voted for and eight voted against.
The new species Names in hyalinobatrachium, is one of more than 100 species of glass frogs on Earth. Its skin is transparent with a yellowish-green tint, which makes its inner workings visible, including its red heart. This transparent feature provides a camouflage advantage that may aid in the survival of the species.
Ecuadorian biologist Juan Manuel Guayasamin spotted for the first time H. names sitting on a leaf above a stream while on an expedition in the tropical Andes in 2012. He initially thought it was a previously identified species and did not confirm that It was actually a new species until genetic work revealed significant differences in its DNA. The conclusions were published in March in the journal PeerJas well as the description of another species of glass frog discovered by Brunner in the same region.
The tropical Andes, a region teeming with undiscovered plants and animals, has attracted biologists from around the world and is now catching the eye of the crypto community as well. For nearly a decade, the Rainforest Trust and its Ecuadorian partner Fundacion Ecominga have worked together to preserve the natural habitat of the tropical Andes, focusing their efforts on the Choco bioregion, where recent expeditions have discovered several new species, including H. names.
The two nonprofits decided to use this frog’s name as a fundraising opportunity, a strategy they and other conservation groups have used in the past. But this is the first time a DAO has purchased the right to name a species.
“We are very reluctant to be seen as promoters of cryptocurrency,” says James Deutsch, CEO of Rainforest Trust. “We are certainly concerned about the energy cost of cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin in particular.”
Deutsch notes that the Rainforest Trust decided to accept the offer because Nouns DAO runs on less energy-intensive Ethereum rather than Bitcoin, and the donation was made in dollars rather than cryptocurrency. The Nouns DAO member who offered the donation is also a board member of the Rainforest Trust, another reason the organization decided to wander into this “grey area,” Deutsch says.
The energy consumption of Bitcoin, which uses the proof-of-work mechanism, is comparable to that of the whole country of Thailand. Proof of work is the primary way to validate monetary transactions and generate new coins in the decentralized system. The reason it’s so power-intensive is that it involves high-powered computers competing in a global guessing game. Finding the correct number becomes more difficult over time, requiring more computing power if the user wants to be the first to get it. To increase their chances of winning, an individual must enter more machines into the game. This has resulted in giant data centers full of dedicated crypto mining computers that run on cheap power.
Ethereum also works on proof of work. Its environmental impact is about half that of Bitcoin, but it still has a carbon footprint comparable to that of Libya. Cryptocurrency was to switch to a more durable mechanism called proof-of-stake in June, a decision that would reduce its energy consumption by 99% by removing the competition factor. But Ethereum lead developer Tim Beiko recently said that it will take a a few more months without a definitive date. Ethereum has been promising to move to proof-of-stake since 2014.
“No one should believe Ethereum is proof-of-stake until it’s fully out of proof-of-work,” says David Gerard, crypto writer and author of 50ft Blockchain Attack. “I will believe it when it happens and not a moment before.”
Gerard says that while he believes proof-of-work mining is a “crime against humanity,” he can understand why charities continue to accept funding from crypto initiatives, because “funding is hopeless by definition”. Some charities, however, have decided to cut ties with crypto. The Mozilla Foundation is no longer accept proof-of-work cryptocurrencies. The Wikimedia Foundation is also reconsider its relationship with crypto funding.
“When charities get involved in crypto projects, they legitimize them – they legitimize a whole ecosystem that has a very high environmental impact,” says Peter Howson, a researcher at Northumbria University in the UK, who has written extensively on the environmental impact of crypto.
Howson also warns of the greenwashing that accompanies crypto’s involvement in the environmental sphere. NFTs have tried to connect to environmental goals, but the integrity of these efforts is still questionable. In some cases, it may be more of a strategy to pump the value of the token, Howson explains.
As to whether crypto can truly be “green,” there are potential scenarios. Some crypto initiatives operate on “sidechains” rather than the main blockchain, which means they do not require mechanisms such as proof-of-work or proof-of-stake. But these applications did not attract a huge audience. Another potential scenario is if the two major cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and Ethereum, transitioned to a non-proof-of-work mechanism.
Some recent crypto custody projects, such as Early adopters of Black Rhino NFT and Outerverse Passport NFT from outsidehave found a home in the Solana blockchain, which operates on a hybrid of proof-of-stake and proof-of-history, suggesting a lower carbon footprint. But that doesn’t solve the problem that the vast majority of crypto transactions still take place on Bitcoin and Ethereum.
The irony woven into Nouns DAO’s conservation funds is just one example of the many ways crypto enthusiasts attempt to merge their passion projects with conservation goals. But as of now, the reality is that Bitcoin dominates the crypto mining industry and Ethereum serves as the backbone for most of the NFT market. Both cryptocurrencies operate on proof of work. This means that conservation nonprofits will have to choose to blacklist an industry that, on the one hand, holds enormous wealth, but on the other hand contributes to significant environmental damage.
“I’m impressed that this very energetic, creative and wealthy group of people have taken the concept of NFT art and used it specifically for charitable purposes,” Deutsch says. “But having said all that, it still wouldn’t justify buying something that was inherently destructive.”