A person on a cherrypicker lift inspecting crypto mining rigs lit in green.
Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ethereum could face an impending e-wastepocalypse

Protocol Climate

A very happy Tuesday. Your Protocol Climate team is happy you’re here — we missed you more than usual this weekend. (It’s true!) Today, we’re exploring the e-waste that could come from the Ethereum Merge as well as how AI could help win the critical mineral race. Plus, we’ve got some great clean energy jobs news.

Ethereum’s messy Merge

The Merge is nigh.

Ethereum is upgrading from proof of work to proof of stake, with the switch likely to happen in the coming week. If successful, this could be a huge win for the climate; the Merge is projected to cut energy consumption tied to mining by about 99%. But there are just a few tiny (OK, big) caveats.

What happens to Ethereum’s mining rigs matters. Crypto mining’s monster carbon footprint comes courtesy of the GPUs used to do the calculations that keep the blockchain secure, all running at the same time. Ethereum’s Merge will switch to a new system that only requires one computer, chosen at random, to do the task, making the need for thousands of mining rigs all working in tandem suddenly obsolete.

  • Bitcoin mining already contributes an estimated 37,000 tons of electronic waste per year, an amount roughly on par with the Netherlands’ small IT equipment waste.
  • That e-waste can damage the climate and is an even greater concern given the threat it poses to the health of communities adjacent to dumping sites. When not properly disposed of, it can cause air and water pollution, as well as exposure to toxic elements like lead and mercury.
  • E-waste can be recycled, but it usually isn’t. In general, only about 20% of it is ever actually recycled, according to a U.N. report.

The Merge will create a conundrum for miners. Unlike bitcoin, Ethereum mining rigs can generally be repurposed, according to Sam Huestis, an associate with RMI’s Climate Intelligence Program.

  • Some mine operators have already said they plan to repurpose their GPUs for cloud computing, AI, graphics rendering or other services.
  • Other operators are considering whether to keep mining Ethereum, creating a fork in the blockchain. Still others could repurpose their sites to mine Bitcoin, tossing out all their Ethereum rigs.
  • Many small-scale miners and individuals operate much more modest setups out of their basements or garages. What they’ll do is still up in the air.
  • While selling old rigs is an option, GPU prices are plunging globally, and mining Ethereum is tough on processors, cutting down on their value.
  • “Determining how much electronic waste this is going to produce is a tougher question,” said Alex de Vries, the founder of Digiconomist, the source of the bitcoin e-waste estimate cited by the White House.

The Ethereum rigs that do stay online and switch to cloud computing or AI applications will still be consuming energy. So while the Merge will ease at least some of crypto’s strain on the grid and reduce the associated carbon pollution, “it’s not like things are going to change that much” from an overall energy use perspective, Andrew Webber, founder and CEO of Digital Power Optimization, a cryptocurrency mining-as-a-service startup, said. That points to the ever-present problem facing the grid and our energy mix: the need to rapidly transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

Read more about the big e-waste and energy issues with the Merge here.

Michelle Ma

AI goes searching for critical minerals

The U.S. has plentiful critical mineral deposits. There’s just one problem: Nobody really knows where they are. But that may be about to change.

The Department of Defense and the U.S. Geological Survey have issued two separate challenges to explore using artificial intelligence and machine learning to expedite USGS’ task of assessing the availability and mining potential of 50 critical minerals. The challenge is enlisting the help of outside researchers and AI developers to solve a vexing problem.

The two agencies have a shared, urgent mission. The Biden administration has warned that the sorry state of U.S. critical mineral operations is a national security concern. And, with the Energy Act of 2020, Congress has tasked USGS with completing all critical mineral assessments in four years. That’s how long it can take the agency to assess the availability of a single mineral, though.

AI could help speed up the critical mineral assessment process. Roughly 10% of USGS’ core database of 100,000 maps have been even partially digitized, and an even smaller share have had the data extracted in a way that is usable. Enter AI.

  • The challenges are an opportunity to draw on the expertise of researchers who have the skills to use AI to digitize the existing data or extract the relevant features and “tap the broadest segment of the innovation ecosystem that’s out there,” said Joshua Elliott, a program manager working on information innovation at DARPA, the DOD’s moonshot wing.
  • This could include private-sector mining companies, university research groups or even individuals. For each challenge, DARPA is offering $10,000 for the first prize, $3,000 for the second and $1,000 for the third.
  • The first challenge is an exercise, Elliott said, in “extreme precision georeferencing” to digitize hard copies and scans of maps into a format that is usable.
  • The second challenge is to then extract important features like fault lines and geological formations to figure out where mineral deposits might sit.

By hand, this would be a painstakingly long process, but Elliott said AI and machine learning have the potential to “make a substantial dent in” the time it could take. Relying on China, Russia and other less-than-friendly nations for critical minerals — as the U.S. currently does — is a risky proposition, geopolitically. Building out the country’s own critical mineral supply chain could mitigate some of those risks and help allies as they look to speed up their own clean energy transition. And it starts with knowing where the minerals are.

Read more about the critical mineral challenges here.

Lisa Martine Jenkins


Today’s inflation crisis is driving up the costs of commodities, food and energy at rates not seen in decades. Businesses must lead in this moment, and can do so most immediately through energy efficiency – aligning with climate commitments while delivering immediate returns and alleviating pressure on citizens and consumers everywhere.

Learn more

One big number: 55%

The pandemic’s early days took a toll on the energy industry, causing widespread layoffs, especially in the fossil fuel sector. However, energy employment has already recovered. Even more promising for the climate: that recovery is largely due to dramatic growth in the clean energy sector. Globally, jobs in clean energy are projected to make up more than 55% of energy jobs writ large this year, according to an estimate from a recent International Energy Agency report.

The analysis defines clean energy workers as those working in bioenergy supply, nuclear and renewable power generation, grids and storage, EV manufacturing and energy efficiency. While fossil fuel employment has dropped slightly since 2019, from 33 million workers to 31.7 million today, clean energy employment has jumped from 32.7 million workers to 39.8 million in the same span.

While 2020 estimates are fuzzy due to pandemic-related labor market disruptions, it certainly seems that the year was both a low point — at roughly 60 million total jobs — and a tipping point for energy employment. When we entered the pandemic, a majority of the world’s energy jobs were in fossil fuels, but two-and-a-half years later, most of them are in clean energy. Maintaining that trajectory could be a challenge, though; the IEA warns higher costs and supply chain constraints could obstruct some of the clean energy hiring momentum going forward.

Lisa Martine Jenkins

Hot links

Biden’s biotech executive order has climate consequences. The creation of a new biotech initiative is primarily aimed at bolstering cancer research, but also includes introducing more bio-based chemicals and biofuels to the supply chain, and engineering soils and crops that capture more carbon.

Solar power and growing blueberries could go hand in hand. A Maine farm has installed solar panels around its wild blueberry bushes. Now we just need to make a blueberry tart using an induction stove to close the loop. (Your Protocol Climate editor highly recommends this one.)

What’s cooler than being cool? New air-conditioning technology could leave consumers better equipped to weather a warming climate while keeping comfortable and energy efficient to boot.

The scariest monster is the one that’s already here — or at least that’s the premise of a growing number of video games in which climate change is the enemy.

Turns out people don’t want to live in floodplains. Including flood risk information in real estate listings makes buyers less inclined to consider homes at risk of inundation.


Today’s inflation crisis is driving up the costs of commodities, food and energy at rates not seen in decades. Businesses must lead in this moment, and can do so most immediately through energy efficiency – aligning with climate commitments while delivering immediate returns and alleviating pressure on citizens and consumers everywhere.

Learn more

Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to climate@protocol.com. See you Thursday!

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