The carbon footprint of selling a print

1 A point-and-click sale

An illustration of an e-commerce website, with a cursor clicking buy for a piece of art.

An artist lists their artwork online and a customer purchases it.

0.028 kg of CO2

Footprint based on Etsy’s carbon footprint for non-shipping activities: 2.7 million kg of CO2 for fewer than 100 million packages in 2018.

2 Packing up the work

An illustration of an artist printing out the artwork and addressing an envelope.

The artist prints the work and packages it up.

0.13 kg of CO2

Based on the carbon footprint for paper and printing in China.

3 Driving to the shipping store

An illustration of a car driving to a shipping store labeled “FedPS.”

The artist drives it to their closest shipping store, 2 mi away.

0.82 kg of CO2

The average gas-powered car in the US emits 0.4 kg of CO2 per mile driven.

4 The first sorting

An illustration of a truck traveling from the FedPS store to its hub.

The store sends the package to the local hub 5 mi away, where it is sorted.

0.08 kg of CO2

A diesel truck gets 10.2 miles per gallon. We assume the package is one of 200 being transported and the hub’s emissions are the same as a sorting facility.

5 Off to the airport

An illustration of a truck traveling from the hub to the airport

From the hub, the package is sent to the airport, 10 mi away.

0.08 kg of CO2

A diesel truck gets 10.2 mpg. We assume the package is one of 200 being transported and the hub’s emissions are the same as a sorting facility.

6 Flying to the sorting facility

An illustration of a cargo plane in flight

The package is flown—along with many others—to the main sorting facility in Louisville, Kentucky, 660 mi away.

0.096 kg of CO2

Based on a 0.5 lb package flown on a fully loaded Boeing 767 freighter with a 132,000 lb capacity.

7 Getting sorted

An illustration of two airplanes on the ground, one dropping off packages, one picking them up after being sorted.

The package is sorted and loaded onto another plane.

0.05 kg of CO2

At peak, UPS Worldport has a 50 megawatt power demand and sorts 416,000 packages per hour.

8 Flying to the customer’s city

An illustration of the new airplane flying.

That plane flies to the closest sorting facility to the customer, 1,800 mi away.

0.22 kg of CO2

Based on a 0.5 lb package flown on a fully loaded Boeing 767 freighter with a 132,000 lb capacity.

9 Transferring to a local hub

An illustration of a delivery van being loaded.

From that facility, the package is sent to a local hub, 10 mi away, where it is sorted onto a delivery truck.

0.11 kg of CO2

A diesel truck gets 10.2 mpg. We assume the package is one of 200 being transported and the hub’s emissions are the same as a sorting facility.

10 Out for delivery

An illustration of the delivery truck outside of a house and a person is putting the package in its mailbox.

Total emissions: 2.304 kg of CO2. That’s similar to driving 5.6 mi in the US’s average gasoline-powered car.

0.69 kg of CO2

Based on a truck making 170 deliveries on a residential route of 100 mi.

Total emissions for mailing a print

All together, shipping a digital print to an online customer causes 2.3 kg of CO2 emissions. Driving a typical gasoline-powered car in the US 100 mi causes 41 kg of CO2 emissions.

The carbon footprint of selling an NFT

1 Uploading the work

An illustration of the artwork and a cursor hovering over a button that says “mint.”

The artist finds a website that will facilitate her creating the NFT. She simply uploads her artwork, titles it, and clicks a button to create, or “mint,” it.

Unclear

Many of the steps in minting an NFT have an unknown carbon footprint.

2 Submitting it to miners

An illustration of the artwork getting inserted into a stack

This minting transaction is then added to a list of un-confirmed crypto transactions. The list contains all the incoming crypto activity, from simple buying and selling to more complex actions, like embedding the record of a digital artwork.

Unclear

Many of the steps in minting an NFT have an unknown carbon footprint.

3 Bundling transactions

An illustration of person wearing a miner’s helmet holding a stack. The artwork is in this stack.

A miner selects a subset of transactions to block together. Transactions are not added into the master ledger one by one. Instead, they’re bundled together in groups known as blocks. The master ledger is known as a blockchain because it is made up of these blocks.

Unclear

Many of the steps in minting an NFT have an unknown carbon footprint.

4 Mining for numbers

An illustration showing a hand attempting to find the combination of a closed padlock.

In order to add this block to the blockchain, this miner must race against time—and other miners—to solve a cryptographic puzzle. They use trial and error to rapidly generate random numbers checking each one to test if it is the solution. Top-of-the-line hardware can make hundreds of millions of guesses per second.

This is what makes crypto-art so environmentally unfriendly. There isn’t just one miner trying to add this block to the blockchain. There are thousands of them, many are huge operations running massive networks of computers in China, the Arctic, or elsewhere churning away trying to find the solution to each puzzle.

To calculate the carbon impact of adding this block to the blockchain, all the energy expended by all miners is counted.

83 kg of CO2

Carbon footprint per Memo Akten.

5 We have a winner

An illustration showing the opened padlock.

The miner who first produces a correct solution to the puzzle first wins!

6 The block is added to the chain

An illustration showing a miner connecting a stack of transactions to other stacks of transactions using a hook.

Miners check if the solution is correct. The process confirming a solution is much less energy intensive than finding it in the first place. If it’s confirmed, the miner’s block of transactions is added to the blockchain.

Unclear

Many of the steps in minting an NFT have an unknown carbon footprint.

7 The miner is paid

An illustration showing a joyful miner receiving cryptocurrency.

The winning miner is paid in cryptocurrency for their services.

Unclear

Many of the steps in minting an NFT have an unknown carbon footprint.

8 The NFT is minted

An illustration showing the artwork now with a seal that reads “NFT.”

The artwork now exists as an NFT, ready to be sold to a customer.

9 The cycle continues

An illustration showing more miners trying to guess the combination on more padlocks that are connected to more stacks.

Every subsequent transaction for this NFT follows the exact same series of events. On average:

  1. Every bid creates 23 kg of CO2
  2. Every sale, 51 kg of CO2
  3. Every transfer, 30 kg of CO2

Each must be added to a block, and the puzzle must be solved and verified. Over its lifecycle, the average NFT will accrue a stunning footprint of 211 kg of CO2, equivalent to driving 513 mi in a typical US gasoline-powered car.

128 kg of CO2

The carbon footprint of a crypto transaction is relative to its complexity: more complicated transactions have a bigger footprint. Artist and programmer Memo Akten calculated the carbon footprints used here.

Comparing the carbon footprint of an NFT

For both scenarios the carbon-emitting life cycle may never end. The NFT may go on being bought and sold via blockchain transactions forever. The print could continue to be shipped to new buyers. Both could expand their carbon footprints indefinitely.

Although we can’t estimate the carbon footprint of each step of the NFT minting process, we do know the print would have to be bought and sold at least 91 times to be as carbon emitting as one average sale of an NFT and that driving a car 100 mi releases just 20% of the emissions of the average NFT sale.