Environmental Impact of Rising Technologies: Are Electric Vehicles, Cryptocurrencies, Artificial Intelligence, and Similar Technologies Guilty or Not Guilty?

The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26), which took place in Glasgow, Scotland, between 31 October and 13 November 2021, was the most discussed topic of recent days.

The main commitments agreed upon at the conference were “phasing down coal power, halting and reversing deforestation, speeding up the switch to electric vehicles, and reducing methane emissions.”

And with the Breakthrough Agenda adopted at the COP26 World Leaders Summit, the participant countries committed to:

  • Power Breakthrough: making clean power the most affordable and reliable option for all countries to meet their power needs efficiently by 2030,
  • Road Transport Breakthrough: making zero-emission vehicles the new standard - accessible, affordable, and sustainable in all regions by 2030,
  • Steel Breakthrough: making near-zero-emission steel the preferred choice in global markets, with efficient use and near-zero emission steel production established and growing in every region by 2030, and
  • Hydrogen Breakthrough: ensuring affordable, renewable, and low carbon hydrogen globally available by 2030.

What about the increase in electricity consumption, which is a big problem even today? Are we aware of how electric vehicles, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, and similar technologies increase the current electricity demand and consume the resources from which we generate this electricity?

Electric Vehicles

Governments have seen electric vehicles as a solution to eliminating the environmental damage caused by fossil fuel-powered vehicles since the 1960s and have supported them by economic incentives since the 1980s. In this context, at COP26, Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Volvo, and BYD committed to “work toward reaching 100% zero-emission” vehicles by 2040 globally and by 2035 in leading markets.

So, if all vehicles are electric in the long term, will we eliminate the damage caused by vehicles to the environment? Maybe, if we run these electric vehicles with power generated from renewable power plants like solar or wind farms.

What about the batteries of these vehicles? How environmentally friendly are the mining operations required for the manufacturing process of these batteries? Will it be possible to reprocess these batteries afterward, which will be hazardous wastes? How much consideration do we give to secondary environmental impacts, such as the potential for toxicity from these batteries?

When we consider all these questions, electric vehicles do not seem innocent.


Like the production process of electric vehicles, cryptocurrency mining to generate cryptocurrencies raises environmental concerns, as does mining activities in the physical world. The reasons for this concern include the utilization of high-capacity hardware, the consumption of large amounts of electricity, the use of fossil fuels in the generation of this electricity, and the creation of vast quantities of electronic waste.

In this sense, Bitcoin stands out as the most damaging cryptocurrency to the environment, while there are also cryptocurrencies that are known as more environmentally friendly, as they use other verification methods instead of mining in their transactions. These cryptocurrencies include Chia, IOTA, Cardano, Solarcoin, and Bitgreen.

The cryptocurrency industry is also taking new approaches to reduce its negative impact on the environment, such as increasing the utilization of renewable energy and creating protocols that use power more efficiently. Accordingly, more than 200 individuals and organizations operating in the crypto, finance, technology, non-governmental organizations, energy, and climate sectors have supported the goal of achieving zero emissions in electricity consumption in crypto activities by 2030, under the name of Crypto Climate Accord.

Although such initiatives are very promising, considering that there are already thousands of cryptocurrencies globally, whether they are sufficient is doubtful.

Artificial Intelligence

When we look at artificial intelligence technologies, the situation becomes even more complex because it is difficult to clearly distinguish the beneficial and harmful effects of artificial intelligence, as in other technologies.

In this sense, we can benefit from artificial intelligence algorithms:

  • For generating, transmitting, distributing, and consuming energy more efficiently,
  • For power plants, electricity transmission, and distribution facilities and lines:
    • Performing preventive maintenance without delays,
    • Shortening breakdown detection and repair times,
    • Predicting severe weather events that may cause damage, and
    • Protecting the physical security and cyber security more effectively, and even
  • For studies to improve electric vehicles’ charge scheduling, battery-energy management, and research and development studies on batteries.

On the other hand, consuming large amounts of electricity is unavoidable to train artificial intelligence. Requiring high-capacity hardware, especially for storing the data that will enable machine learning and using techniques such as deep learning, are among the most critical factors that increase electricity consumption.

Therefore, increasing the utilization of renewable energy in this field is imminent. For example, technology giant Google already uses electricity generated from renewable energy resources and optimizes energy efficiency in its data centers with its DeepMind artificial intelligence program.

Is Renewable Energy the Solution?

The leading solution to meet the ever-increasing demand for electrical energy with minor environmental damage stands out as increasing electricity generation from renewable energy resources. But is this a sustainable solution?

First, electricity generated from solar, wind, or river-type hydroelectric power plants can be intermittent depending on natural conditions. Additionally, we may destroy agricultural lands, forest lands, or pasture areas to construct these power plants.

Specific to hydroelectric power plants, on the other hand, there may be consequences such as:

  • Flooding due to changing the water flow regime,
  • Submerging of cultural or historic areas,
  • Increased risk of erosion or landslides,
  • Decay of habitats and plants by being submerged underwater,
  • Extinction of plant and animal species,
  • Decrease in aquatic species, or
  • Increased risk of drought.

In this context, increasing electricity generation from renewable energy resources does not seem to be a sustainable solution alone to meet the increasing electricity demand if it will result in the deterioration of nature and the reduction of biodiversity. Because sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

For these reasons, nuclear power plants are also frequently recommended as a clean energy option. However, is it right to increase nuclear power plants in developing countries while the developed countries gradually abandon them? Or does the contribution of nuclear power plants to the environment high enough to justify the risks taken in terms of operational safety and radioactive waste? These are among the issues that we need to examine carefully.

So, as a legal solution, we can suggest reviewing energy and environmental regulations to:

  • Give priority to preventive measures instead of punitive approaches,
  • Increase the incentives given to the most advanced and environmentally friendly power generation and efficiency techniques,
  • Ensure energy efficiency solutions to be economically preferable for both businesses and consumers,
  • Support the development of green technologies,
  • Disincentivize dirty technologies, and
  • Promote transparent, accountable, environmentally conscious, and sustainable digital technologies.

Nevertheless, perhaps the primary and the most effective solution is no longer increasing the world’s electrical energy demand! For instance, does our natural world that we are trying to protect need a virtual world like the metaverse?

Av. Müge Önal Başer, LL.M., LL.B.



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