WWF planned to turn endangered species into an eco-friendly NFT series, in the name of conservation. Safe to say, this did not go down well…

Last week, the UK arm of the wildlife conservation organisation, WWF announced it would be using NFTs to raise awareness and funds for endangered animals. The NFTs (non-fungible tokens) included a giant panda, a Galápagos penguin, and a Javan rhino, plus many more. This was met with huge backlash from the conservation world.

Why the Controversey?

Opting to raise awareness for conservation and the protection of the environment via a highly energy-inefficient means certainly raised a lot of questions. The “Tokens for Nature” scheme, depicting 13 endangered species, was scrapped on Friday (4th Feb) just a day after it was unveiled.

The environmental ethics around crypto art has been a hot topic over the last year or so. As the popularity and ubiquity of NFTs has increased, so have concerns about its impact on the planet. The electricity and energy required to power servers charged with processing transactions on blockchains is staggering. The carbon footprint of a company facilitating this, like Ethereum, is staggering. According to digital currency economist, Alex de Vries, Ethereum’s carbon footprint is comparable to Singapore’s.

Why Choose NFTs?

Many environmentalists were left wondering why WWF would even entertain the idea of NFTs. The organisation seemingly thought it had found a way to mint NFTs in a way that was considerably less harmful to the environment than standard practices. This alternative is called Layer 2 blockchain.

Without delving too deeply, Layer 2 blockchain is thought to be a much more green way to process crypto transactions. It is supposed to use much less energy than standard blockchain, making it the more environmentally friendly choice.

The problem is, Layer 2 blockchains still ultimately rely on the main, more energy-hungry blockchain. WWF were looking to work with Polygon, a Layer 2 blockchain tied to Ethereum. Polygon claims that transactions on its blockchain use much less energy than Ethereum. However, according to de Vries, transactions on Polygon’s blockchain are roughly 2,100 times higher in terms of environmental impact than WWF believed. This is because Polygon claims to use a much less energy-hungry process for validating transactions.

The extent to which Layer 2 blockchains are less energy inefficient, if at all, is largely unclear. Since these kinds of blockchain still work in tandem with ones like Ethereum, they’re still very much adding to the problem, not reducing it or even creating no added impact.

When making the initial announcement about its eco-friendly NFT plans, WWF shared how it calculated energy use and emissions from Polygon. On a website, now unavaiable, the environmentalist enthusiasts said Polygon produces just 0.207 grams of CO2 for a single transaction. Alex de Vries calculated that, in reality, the amount is closer to 430 grams.

What’s Next?

In their statement announcing the end of the NFT plan, WWF said:

We thank all of those who have generously supported our conservation work by purchasing NFTs.

We have now agreed with our partners to bring this trial to a close this evening (Friday 4th February). We recognise that NFTs are a much debated issue and we all have lots to learn about this new market, which is why we will now fully assess the impact of this trial and reflect on how we can best continue to innovate to engage our supporters.

Whilst this eco-friendly NFT venture has been put on ice, it seems like it isn’t over for good. In fact, the German WWF branch are already using NFTs to further its cause. Its Non-Fungible Animals scheme launched in November last year, and is still raising funds for conservation. In an email to The Verge, WWF Germany said, “For us it was never about the funds. It was about raising awareness regarding the species extinction.”

In this case, you could be left wondering if this route of raising awareness is worth it. Whilst NFTs are incredibly trendy at the moment, the huge sums of money linked to them would surely be the predominant motivator for getting involved in them. If awareness is the top priority for WWF here, you can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a way to achieve this that is more in line with environmentalist values.