The British Museum's carbon problem

May 9 2022

Image of The British Museum's carbon problem

Picture: BM

One of the things I've been getting vexed about in my regular column for The Art Newspaper is the British Museum's NFT sales. To raise cash, the BM has signed an exclusive deal with a company called La Collection to sell NFTs of works from its own collection, some of which are being marketed for thousands of pounds. Whatever you may think of NFTs and digital art, I hope we can all regret a public museum monetising works of art the public already owns. It feels like the thin end of a worrying wedge.

Besides, in reality the BM's NFTs are simply jpegs already available on the BM's website for free, but with a line of code attached to them so they can be put on the blockchain, and so apparently give them value. Prices for one of the BM's Hokusai Great Wave NFTs have apparently reached $45,000. If you'd like one of the images for free instead, there's one at the top of this story.

Anyway, the NFT market is stalling, and you and I are not daft enough to buy one. But the reason for my latest bout of vexedness is over the huge carbon emissions the BM's NFT sales are generating. Because creating and selling NFTs is an energy intensive operation, it consumes vast amounts of carbon. For The Art Newspaper, I ran the numbers, and discovered that:

The widely used carbon-offsetting website Aerial estimates the total emissions associated with the BM’s NFTs so far is 819 tonnes of CO2. Last year, the British Museum calculated its emissions over the whole museum to be 5,861 tonnes. In only six months of selling jpegs, the BM has thus significantly increased its annual emissions. LaCollection says it will plant one tree for each NFT it makes. One tree will absorb about one tonne of CO2 over the course of 100 years. The BM said recently that it views NFTs as “a multi-year play”, so one tree per NFT is not nearly enough.

More here. You can read the BM's current environment policy document here. It's one page long and was last updated in 2007.

In case you'd like to hear more of my reactionary views on NFTs, I was interviewed by David Aaronovitch for the BBC Radio 4 programme The Briefing Room, here.

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