Visa is Bringing Bitcoin Pollution Everywhere You Want to Be
by Erik Kojola
October 5, 2023
Visa is just about everywhere with its credit and debit card offerings accepted by millions of merchants around the globe and used by millions of people to make their daily purchases. Now, the world’s largest payment processor is also exploring new ways for customers and businesses to use Bitcoin.
© Manuela Lourenço / Greenpeac
Visa is just about everywhere with its credit and debit card offerings accepted by millions of merchants around the globe and used by millions of people to make their daily purchases. Now, the world’s largest payment processor is also exploring new ways for customers and businesses to use Bitcoin. This support for Bitcoin contradicts the company’s stated commitments to sustainability and reducing climate warming emissions because Bitcoin is an electricity hog, often powered by dirty energy. Bitcoin operations could become even worse due to adoption driven by Visa’s new services.
While Visa has extensive expertise on cryptocurrencies, the company is not putting those resources to work on cleaning up Bitcoin’s pollution and climate impacts despite making strong corporate climate action pledges.
Helping Grow Bitcoin’s Pollution
Currently, Bitcoin is primarily a speculative investment in which people bet on whether its price goes up or down. With support from Visa and other large financial services companies, that could change. Visa is making it easier for people to buy, trade, and spend bitcoin which is vital for the cryptocurrencies growth and its actual use for transactions. Visa is collaborating with crypto exchanges to let people buy their morning cup of coffee or weekly groceries using bitcoin. For example, people in the U.S. who store bitcoin in a Coinbase wallet can spend it at any merchant in Visa’s vast network thanks to a card issued in partnership with Coinbase.
More widespread use and greater demand means a higher bitcoin price, which has historically contributed to Bitcoin’s enormous energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Here’s why: when the price of bitcoin is high, there is incentive for “miners” to employ more computing power and electricity in the digital guessing game to win new bitcoin and fees.
Much of Bitcoin’s electricity use is generated by fossil fuels: 62% globally according to estimates from Cambridge University researchers. And dirty coal is the largest single source.
Bitcoin miners using more energy also puts more demand on often-strained electrical grids and uses energy that could be directed towards other socially necessary uses including the rapid expansion of electrification that is needed to address the climate crisis.
Putting Dirty Bitcoin in Your Wallet
Visa is one of several large financial services companies leading the mainstream adoption of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
Visa has multiple crypto-linked credit and debit cards that enable customers to spend and earn rewards in bitcoin. One such card is offered in partnership with Coinbase, the largest crypto exchange in the United States. The Coinbase card automatically converts Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to US Dollars at point of sale with any retailer in Visa’s network. Customers can also earn reward points in bitcoin. Visa also partnered with Crypto.com, another large crypto exchange company, to support a prepaid card that customers can load with bitcoin. This joins other bitcoin rewards debit cards like the one offered by Fold in collaboration with Visa which has reportedly rewarded over $30 million in bitcoin since launching in 2020.
Concerningly, Visa is also expanding its crypto offerings around the world despite mounting evidence of Bitcoin’s climate impact. The company recently launched a debit card in collaboration with EU crypto exchange Lama that allows customers to spend their bitcoin. Visa created a long-term strategic partnership with Wirex, a crypto platform and exchange company, to expand in the United Kingdom and Asia-Pacific by offering crypto debit and prepaid cards.
Partnerships with crypto companies and products that enable using bitcoin have created a growing business for Visa. In the first quarter of 2022, Visa reported that customers made $2.5 billion worth of purchases on their Visa crypto cards. The company said its network of crypto wallet partners grew from 54 to 65 by early 2022, including Coinbase, Circle, and BlockFi, and that almost 100 million merchants now accept crypto, including bitcoin, on the Visa network. In February 2023, Visa leaders denied a Reuters report claiming the company was pausing new crypto partnerships and services, and reaffirmed that the company was still moving forward into the crypto sector.
Visa also helps other companies adopt cryptocurrencies. And because Bitcoin has the largest market cap of any cryptocurrency, this certainly includes Bitcoin. Visa’s Digital Currency Innovation Hub assists clients in understanding cryptocurrencies and creating new business opportunities and products. Visa’s crypto consulting and advisory services help clients, like financial institutions and retailers, navigate the complex and changing cryptocurrency landscape. The hub also publishes public educational materials on crypto and blockchain technologies.
Bitcoin Reveals Visa’s Climate Hypocrisy
Visa has committed to reaching net zero by 2040, in line with the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement. To accomplish this, Visa has set science based emissions reductions targets to meet a 1.5 C pathway that many see as necessary for avoiding the worst of the climate catastrophe. Visa also says the company embeds sustainability into its partnerships and initiatives, principles the company does not appear to be applying in its Bitcoin-related partnerships. Visa also offers products to increase public awareness of climate change, such as a CO2 calculator for customers to track emissions from their purchases. Yet, Visa has not done anything to account for emissions from bitcoin transactions even though researchers find that bitcoin transactions have a much larger carbon footprint than transactions using US Dollars and other traditional government-issued currencies.
Visa needs to work on cleaning up Bitcoin or stop growing its Bitcoin-related services. Publicly acknowledging Bitcoin’s climate problems is the first step. This is an opportunity for Visa to lead the financial services sector on climate change, sustainability, and technological innovation. We need companies like Visa to send a powerful message to Bitcoin adopters that the technology needs to innovate to align with climate goals.
Cryptocurrencies can operate using cleaner technologies, and with the support and creativity of companies like Visa, we can future-proof Bitcoin against a warming world.
- Qin, Meng, Tong Wu, Xuecheng Ma, Lucian Liviu Albu, and Muhammad Umar, Are Energy Consumption and Carbon Emission Caused by Bitcoin? A Novel Time-Varying Technique, 80 Economic Analysis and Policy p 109–20 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eap.2023.08.004; Asumadu Sarkodie, Samuel, Maruf Ahmed, and Thomas Leirvik, Trade Volume Affects Bitcoin Energy Consumption and Carbon Footprint, 48 Finance Research Letters p. 102977 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.frl.2022.102977.