Assessing the environmental impact of a broad ecosystem is not simple. When trying to measure the carbon footprint of the internet, one has to consider all the layers that are part of this system. Web3, like the traditional web, has layers, so the only way to analyze its sustainability is by segments.
The motivation for the evaluation of Web3 is obvious: if Web3 represents an evolution of Web2, it must also be more sustainable.
Just to remind you what Web3 is…
Web3 has become a catch-all term for the vision of a new, better internet. At its core, Web3 uses blockchains, cryptocurrencies, and NFTs to give power back to the users in the form of ownership. So pretty much Web1 was read-only, Web2 is read-write, Web3 will be read-write-own.
Despite differences in architecture and functionality for users, there are some basic principles that all Web3 protocols have:
- Data storage layer
- Consensus layer
- End-Use Layer
- Data Traffic Layer
Now back to the environment.
The data traffic layer is already in operation. Its environmental impact can be measured by the amount of submarine cables, antennas, and data centers. There is the impact of manufacturing these components, the impact of installation, and the impact of electricity use.
Regarding electricity use, adding up the data transmission consumption worldwide of the entire Internet, this amounts to something between 260–340 TWh (about 1.4% of global electricity use).
As for the end-use layer, corresponding to the devices (smartphone, notebook etc. ) that make the transaction requests, it is also used for the most different purposes, not only for web3. It is even possible to state that if web3 did not exist, there would be little impact on the production of these devices, since devices geared exclusively or mostly for blockchain applications are still very few on the market.
We can come to a similar conclusion about the storage layer, which uses traditional computers and servers. In fact, there are few datacenters dedicated to the Web3 in terms of data storage, since the full node concept consists basically of one computer per node, and it does not make much sense to create a large facility for this purpose, except in the case of renting virtual machines, where different users hire space in cloud services. But these exist for the main purpose of serving Web2.
So where is the Web3 environmental problem you might ask.
The real point of criticism of web3 is in the consensus layer. When you read news that the bitcoin network consumes more energy than some countries, this is because of the Proof of Work protocol.
PoW mining consists of computers performing many calculations. These calculations are attempts to “guess” a correct number, like a lottery. The first one to get it right wins the right to mine a block.
Every 10 minutes a new block is mined in the network and the work begins again. The more computing power a miner has, the more chances he has to mine a block.
Green alternatives to the Proof of Work.
The Proof of Stake (PoS) protocol works differently from PoW. Instead of computers trying to hit a number, PoS draws the miner from the amount of tokens he owns. The more tokens an agent has, the more likely he is to be chosen.
This explanation is quite simplistic and does not take into account several security and decentralization aspects present in PoS protocols, but the basic concept is based on this.
PoS protocols are considered sustainable. The energy cost of a machine participating in PoS is similar to that of a laptop.
This is another important detail of the PoS protocol. There is no “mining farm” concept, because to increase the probability of being chosen to validate a block, a pool just needs more delegated tokens, not more computers.
With the popularity of the PoS protocol, the trend is for Web3 to become more and more sustainable. It is difficult to get to the point of being carbon neutral, but there is no doubt that the real concerns and criticisms of Web3 today are due to the use of PoW protocols.
Although Web3 represents an evolution in relation to Web2 in several aspects, when it comes to energy, Web3 will probably not be more eco-friendly than Web2. Decentralized networks require a complex infrastructure and the implementation of consensus protocols, which in some cases have high energy consumption.