Internet Computer Footprint: Assessing IC Energy Consumption and Sustainability

A snapshot of the sustainability profile of the Internet Computer blockchain.

Carbon Crowd
The Internet Computer Review

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The energy intensity of blockchains and their associated carbon footprints have been under scrutiny for years. Proof-of-work consensus mechanisms, used by Bitcoin and until recently by Ethereum, require enormous computational power to operate, and are therefore extremely energy intensive. Ethereum’s “Merge” is transitioning it to the less energy consumptive proof-of-stake model, with the majority of the blockchain industry now working in much less energy intensive ways. While progress has been made, the blockchain industry still has a long way to go to be considered sustainable.

The conversation becomes more nuanced, and asks how much decentralization is needed to gain the trust guarantees expected from blockchains. Every node validating every transaction or computation incurs wasteful replication, and is costly both for the user and for the climate. What was once a proof-of-work vs. proof-of-stake debate now becomes one of replication vs. utility. A middle ground has emerged where many blockchains leverage extra techniques (sharding, rollups, parachains, etc.) to scale and gain efficiency but also cut down their carbon footprint. Incorporating scaling solutions, while beneficial, adds complexity to the ecosystem, and care must be taken in the computation and the interpretation of reported sustainability policies and results.

Earlier this year, the Internet Computer (IC) ecosystem adopted the community-authored NNS Proposal #55487 to establish a carbon footprint and sustainability policy for the blockchain. Soon after, our team at Carbon Crowd began developing the Internet Computer Footprint, a project that aims to decarbonize the underlying digital infrastructure of the Internet Computer.

Internet Computer Footprint: IC Sustainability Report 2022 documents the IC’s current electricity usage and carbon footprint, and includes a series of proposals for the network’s decarbonization. It was researched and written by Carbon Crowd with extensive support from the DFINITY Foundation, a major contributor to the IC, with special thanks to DFINITY senior research scientist Aisling Connolly. The depth of data the foundation provided shows its determination to understand the IC’s environmental impact and develop technology that benefits everyone. The report’s findings were reviewed by Fingreen AI, an ESG risk-analytics expert.

This post is an abridged version of the full report we wrote, which you can review by visiting our website, carboncrowd.io.

Methodology & Results

The IC network runs on individual nodes that are installed and distributed in independent data centers around the globe. These physical pieces of hardware consume electricity from regional grids in order to run computation. Because we know the number of nodes in each region, the energy grid-mix of each region, and the average amount of electricity that a node consumes over time, we can deduce their collective carbon footprint. This includes all of the IC network’s 518 active nodes that were assigned to subnets at the time of analysis, and 208 standby nodes, which were not running computation while waiting to be assigned to subnets. For the sake of brevity, this post only discusses the active node results. Results that include standby nodes can be reviewed in the full report.

Scope 2

Scope 2 emissions are generated from the purchase of electricity and other forms of power to run the network’s hardware.

Table 1: The total power usage

Table 2: Emissions factor and associated carbon footprints

Figure 2: Total active node emissions

Table 3: Energy-consumption per transaction on the IC

Figure 4: A comparison of the energy consumption per transaction between blockchains

Scope 3

Scope 3 includes indirect emissions in the network’s supply chain, from hardware manufacturing and data-transfer activities to end-user behavior. Including accurate data on these processes is challenging and requires an extensive audit. We hope to include more granular Scope 3 emissions in future reports. Scope 3 calculations have a wider margin of error, and should not be considered as high fidelity as the prior Scope 2 data. As shown below, our initial calculations suggest a ~85% increase in emissions that can be accounted for beyond the Scope 2 emissions.

Looking to the future

According to the Internet Computer dashboard, the IC currently has 518 nodes actively running in subnets, with another ~700 waiting to be assigned to subnets (i.e., on standby). By the end of 2022, the IC expects to run on more than 1,000 nodes, of which ~30% will be standby nodes. If this projection is realized, we estimate the Scope 2 carbon cost of running the IC to grow to between 218–981 tCo2e/year (assuming a range of 0.2–0.9 tCo2e per node and a goal of 1090 nodes).

To anticipate what future IC emissions could look like without sustainably focused development, we estimated the carbon cost of running the IC as it scales an order of magnitude. All else being equal, running at 10,000 nodes would emit 2,224 to 9,387 tCo2e/year (over 1900 US homes). This clearly demonstrates the relationship between scaling a blockchain, and increasing carbon emissions. Carbon Crowd’s mission is to break this relationship, first for the IC, then for other decentralized and centralized digital infrastructure.

Proposals

Carbon Crowd’s decarbonization strategy is listed as potential NNS proposals below. They are designed to empower the IC community to determine the future of the blockchain. Concerned community members should assess, debate, and submit proposals that they would like to see included in the IC’s technical roadmap. Carbon Crowd has the technical experience to support the implementation of the following proposals if the broader IC community wishes to pursue them. The below proposals have been expanded upon in the full report.

1. Develop real-time measurement of the IC’s energy consumption and associated carbon footprint

  • Implement real-time measurement of IC’s energy consumption for each active and standby node in the network.
  • Generate a real-time associated carbon footprint for each active and standby node in the network.
  • Add real-time energy consumption and carbon footprint reporting to the publicly available dashboards. (Aggregates may need to be used for security purposes.)
  • Prepare reporting to comply with the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, even if this is voluntary and not a legal requirement.

2. Develop a fully decarbonized subnet on the Internet Computer

  • Develop a fully decarbonized subnet by running an entire subnet’s nodes entirely on renewable energy.
  • Assess the feasibility of moving the entire IC to zero emission subnets upon completion

3. Establish a leadership group to champion sustainability initiatives within the IC

  • Create a dedicated working group to propose, plan, implement and report on progress for decarbonization and other sustainability-related activities on the IC.
  • Ensure a role for DFINITY and the IC community within the working group.
  • Assign a budget to incentivize the working group and maintain its operations.

4. Offset the carbon debt of the IC to bring the network to carbon neutrality

  • Use direct air capture (DAC) or nature-based carbon credits with provable additionality and a high chance of permanence to offset the IC’s carbon debt.

5. Immediately retire nodes of high-carbon intensity on the IC network

  • Immediately replace the highest-intensity nodes with lower-intensity nodes that are currently on standby.

Moonshot Proposals 🚀

Dynamic Cycle Costs Incorporating Real-time Emission Costs

Incorporate real-time emissions-data for each subnet running on the IC. Each subnet should then have different cycle-costs which incorporate the emissions used. There should be a queryable contract which provides forecast emission-factors for the next 24 hours (allowing scheduling of batch-jobs). This should be the first step towards developing the tools for the community to incorporate environmental decisions into their projects.

Smart Query Routing

Prioritize routing query traffic (which doesn’t require full compute-replication) to less carbon-intensive nodes/regions. This can be done with the boundary-node routing logic taking into account the emission-factors of each node in a subnet.

Smart Contract Accountability Tracking

By tracking cycle burn-rates for all contracts, it is possible to directly approach the highest-impact projects and work to reduce their carbon footprint. This information can be publicly tracked and available to promote transparency and accountability within the ecosystem.

Incremental Sustainability Report and Overview

Incorporate an incremental sustainability report, with a yearly ‘checkpoint’ report to measure and assess progress towards decarbonization.

There is a clear business case for encouraging a more sustainability-focused IC. Climate tech startups are more likely to choose the IC as their full-stack protocol of choice if it leads by example. Consumers are increasingly conscious of environmental sustainability, and employees are similarly conscious when deciding where to work. Developing a thriving culture of sustainability within the IC would be good for the IC ecosystem as well as the planet. Further, it would preempt changes to the network that are likely to be required by regulators as the urgency to reach climate goals increases in the next decade.

Conclusion

The IC is an energy-efficient network, yet still has a substantial emissions footprint that will continue to grow alongside adoption. During a single year, the IC was calculated to consume ~740,000 Kwh of energy and emit 275 tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is roughly equivalent to 100 average US homes.

There is a strong business case to be made alongside ethical arguments for the IC to increase the scope of its decarbonization and broader sustainability activities. A number of initiatives, of various sizes and complexity, can be implemented to begin reducing the carbon intensity of the IC network. This report has packaged what it views as the most important and feasible as proposals which can be submitted by the IC community, or directly acted on by DFINITY. It has further outlined a number of “moonshot proposals,” that would be more difficult to implement but would further contribute to decarbonization efforts.

Growing urgency for environmental accountability across the world, both from governments and people, will increase pressure for institutions to develop and execute on sustainability strategies. The IC should act now to avoid being caught off-guard by regulation, and steer the narrative of the high energy intensity of blockchains. The unique capabilities of the IC blockchain, as well as the high level of expertise and willingness to contribute both within DFINITY and the IC community more broadly, mean that all the ingredients for effecting deep, positive change are present.

The report above provides a snapshot of the sustainability profile of the IC blockchain. This is the first step in a journey towards decarbonization for the IC, but also for other blockchains that realize the importance of acknowledging, and reducing any negative externalities of their operations.

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