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First Do No Harm

Solving the climate crisis with big data and blockchain 

Big data and blockchain are often claimed to be the solution to many of the world’s largest challenges such as poverty, global heath and climate change. These technologies offer the possibility of revolutionizing business models and human behaviour, ushering in a new age of sustainable solutions and low-impact, high-return business practices. But before we jump on the bandwagon it is worth considering the environmental costs incurred when we use these technologies. 

Primum non nocere  is one of the principle precepts of bioethics that doctors are taught in medical school -  First do no harm. This precept tells us that given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something if by acting we may cause further damage. So before employing our big data toolset and blockchain to solve the climate crisis, let’s consider the environmental cost involved.

The cloud is a real place

It is easy to pretend that blockchain transactions and big data storage and processing do not incur any significant carbon costs. Most of the processing happens in the cloud – out of sight and conveniently out of mind. But the cloud is a real place. Massive server farms store and process all of our data and transactions, with large service providers like Amazon, Google and Facebook using billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity to keep their servers running. Some blockchain applications are frighteningly wasteful in their usage of electricity. The energy required to power the computers that validate and process transactions on the bitcoin network exceeds the annual electricity usage of the entire country of Ireland. Preforming a single bitcoin transaction consumes enough energy to boil a liter of water in your household kettle 500 times over!

These alarming statistics have moved some companies to seek ways of reducing their energy bill and adopt renewable sources. Using Machine Learning to improve operating efficiency, and by sourcing energy from renewable energy providers, Google’s cloud platform is now almost completely carbon neutral. New cryptocurrencies, such as Chia, promised to change the way blockchain transactions are verified to radically reduced energy usage.

Blockchain and Big data must form part of the solution to pull us out of the environmental quagmire we find ourselves in. But users need to make ethical, informed decisions when employing these technologies to mitigate any potential carbon costs. Remember, Primum non nocere.  

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