Beyond the hype: Intel's efforts for greener, sustainable blockchains



Intel's commitment to addressing climate change runs deep.

We've pledged to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in global operations by 2040, to increase the energy efficiency and lower the carbon footprint of Intel products and platforms.

As outlined in the Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Working Group II Contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, “without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) is beyond reach.” Intel has responded with a goal for zero Scope 1 (direct) and Scope 2 (purchased energy) carbon emissions by 2040. 

Intel’s Carbon Reduction and Green Software team focuses on reducing Intel’s Scope 3 emissions for our customers, or the carbon consumption for products currently in use, as well as those we ship in the future. In addition to understanding the current state of green software and the needs of software practitioners today, we’re also trying to anticipate the potential needs of developers engaged with high-energy workloads, including artificial intelligence, gaming, the metaverse, and Web3.

As part of these efforts, our team hosted a virtual Blockchain and Sustainability roundtable in collaboration with Linux Foundation Research. The event brought together experts and stakeholders from across the Web3 ecosystem to talk openly and critically about how various Web3 communities define and practice sustainability.

The roundtable took place at an interesting and opportune time: during a major market upheaval and cryptocurrency crash that both altered the long term calculus of regulators and industry players, and wiped out nearly $2 trillion in wealth.  In a way, the financial fallout was useful because it’s forcing Web3 stakeholders to go beyond financial speculation and hype and figure out what the most pressing actual blockchain use cases might be.

In organizing this event and the subsequent forthcoming report based on roundtable discussions, our main objectives were to build community, drive ecosystem wide change, and create business and organizational value. We can’t solve the climate crisis with one technology designed by one company – it requires a cross-industry effort, with input from communities, academic researchers, and climate advocates.

Intel’s stalwart commitment to open source is a key piece of this endeavor, as we build relationships and technologies with fellow travelers to enact positive social change. We hope that the public report produced from this event will help build knowledge about sustainability and blockchains for the broader community. 

In addition to many representatives from across Intel – including Arjun Kapoor,  Director of Strategy for Intel® Blockscale*, and Claire Vishik, an Intel fellow for hardware, security, and cryptography – we gathered an interdisciplinary cohort of academics and researchers thinking about the cultural, ecological, and political stakes of blockchains from a variety of perspectives, proof-of-work (PoW) infrastructure builders and providers thinking differently about compute/energy relationships, carbon market and energy trading companies that are leveraging Web3 technologies, and greenhouse gas standards organizations that are facilitating carbon measurement and credit verification both on and off the blockchain.  

We included both Bitcoin and Ethereum and decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) adherents, which is made for a more diverse and interesting event. Participants engaged in small breakout sessions and larger group discussions around the meaning of sustainability, and varied approaches to both using blockchain technology to aid in sustainability efforts and making blockchains themselves more climate friendly. 

While attendees largely stayed away from remarks about the crypto crash, the moment certainly colored our conversations. Many participants expressed concern over the sometimes dubious nature of carbon credits and other greenwashing claims, which seem dangerously close to the scams and security breaches plaguing crypto in general.

To ensure privacy and candor at the event, we followed Chatham House Rules, meaning that participants are free to use information from the discussion, but not attribute any particular comment.  

That freedom led to some interesting insights we’re sharing here anonymously.  One roundtable attendee said, “We’re very skeptical about the trustworthiness of offsets as a part of that solution.” Another agreed: “I don’t think that they are ready yet as a trustworthy instrument to verify that carbon implications have been accounted for.” Others chimed in: “It’s really difficult to create carbon credits that genuinely avoid or remove carbon from the atmosphere.” Additionally, it is difficult to accurately calculate the emissions associated with proof-of-work, though many have tried, but the public perception of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and other energy-intensive use cases have led to some companies banning NFTs or efforts to ban crypto transactions altogether. 

At the roundtable, most participants did not mention the Merge, or Ethereum’s transition from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake that finally coalesced on September 15. This long-awaited change purports to slahs energy use by roughly 99%.  

However, there are key differences between what is said and what is done, and those differences need to be further explored.  

With the Ethereum switch, the net reduction in energy use across what used to be the Ethereum network is much harder to determine. Not all GPUs previously mining Ethereum just disappeared. The hardware and other infrastructures already built for PoW are still there, and cannot simply be flipped, like a switch. There are diverse communities of actors making all sorts of different decisions about what to do with all of this hardware. Perhaps some of them will mine another profitable coin. Maybe some will repurpose their GPU infrastructures for other workloads. There’s even a small but vocal contingent of Ethereum miners attempting to create a hard fork to continue mining Ethereum with a PoW consensus protocol. The upshot: Ethereum’s claim to have reduced its energy consumption by 99% is complicated, as the PoW infrastructures it has built over the last decade will not simply disappear. Some will, sure, but others will become something different. What will they become? What can they become? These are key questions for Intel.

Although some of our participants attended Merge parties as they waited for the Merge to happen at the stroke of midnight, The Merge, and its subsequent fallout, is a good example of the gap between discourse and practice that we set out to address in the event with the Web3 community. 

For a team of green software researchers who are trying to anticipate emergent user needs, we viewed the roundtable as an opportunity to have a frank and open conversation about the relationship between climate change and blockchains. When it comes to using blockchains to further decarbonization efforts, or mitigating the harms of energy-intensive proof-of-work systems, everyone has a different working definition of sustainability and a different set of methods for approaching it.

In a news story that broke right before the event, Land Life, a Dutch carbon offsetting firm, accidentally started a massive wildfire in Spain, undoing its own tree-planting efforts. Sometimes technological interventions have unforeseen effects.  While blockchain is a small component of Land Life’s operation, press coverage like this can make the public wary of green blockchain claims, especially around carbon credits and offsets. Journalists have published stories debunking, or at least complicating, the claims for carbon offset companies: The Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) found that one major pioneer in this new market, Brazilian green climate tech firm Moss, which purportedly had the support of Indigenous groups in the Amazon and intended to protect the rainforest, bought carbon credits it said privately were of "low quality" - a judgment it later reversed in response to the investigation - and mixed them with others to back its digital token, selling them on for far more than it paid. Carbon offsets are valuable as corporations attempt to reach their Net Zero goals, but more needs to be done to verify that carbon credits are reliable. 

What is clear from such setbacks is that the sustainable blockchains space is in need of standards, transparency, and accountability, especially when it comes to claims about carbon offsets and other efforts that are intended to benefit Indigenous communities and other marginalized communities in the Global South.

Open source solutions are also necessarily a part of this. A blockchain is, in effect, little more than a distributed ledger protocol that generates consensus through various types of participation and input from actors across its associated network. As a technology, blockchain is not inherently decentralized, but it can encourage certain structures of decentralization. It is not inherently open source, but, as an infrastructure, it can productively encourage open source solutions. And, of course, many climate-related blockchain projects are explicitly open source, including Filecoin Green, Energy Web, KlimaDAO, and Gitcoin.  

There are signals that open source sustainable blockchains will be of increasing financial and social interest. Around the same time as our event, Filecoin, a completely open source project, hosted a sustainable blockchains summit in Paris for a two-day summit of expert talks, workshops and deep dives featuring top thought leaders in sustainability. Open source blockchains help ensure greater transparency while making it easier for various companies and agencies to collaborate.

We hope that the findings from this roundtable can shed some light on the relationship between decarbonization and broader social justice efforts. The issues that we are grappling with in Web3 are analogous to problems across the entire tech industry and beyond. As an ecosystem still in its early days, we are thinking hard about climate impacts and carbon accounting from the very start. We also hope that this event can seed new ideas and directions as well, because we can only move forward, toward a greener future, collectively.

Stay tuned for our in-depth report, which we hope to have published by the end of 2022.

About the authors: 

Tamara Kneese is Director of Developer Engagement on the Carbon Reduction and Green Software team in Intel’s the Software and Advanced Technology group. She holds a PhD from NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and is on Twitter at @tamigraph.  

Zane Griffin Talley Cooper is a Graduate Technical Intern on the Carbon Reduction and Green Software team in Intel’s Software and Advanced Technology group. He is a PhD candidate at UPenn’s Annenberg School of Communication and Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Advanced Research on Global Communication. You can find him on Twitter at @ZaneGTCooper

Photo by Josh Riemer on Unsplash