June 5 was World Environment Day and this year’s theme, ‘Only One Earth’, emphasised the need for humans to curb destructive growth practices and save our planet as we know it for posterity.
While these calls have grown louder and gained a sense of urgency as countries around the world reckon with the social and economic impact of climate change, the act of designating the day to mark the need for action goes back to the Stockholm Conference 50 years ago. Yet another idea that was conceived decades ago but has only recently gained momentum is the metaverse.
This got us thinking about the other ways the metaverse and the push for more sustainable economies and ways of living may be linked. Could the metaverse and all that it encompasses help ensure humanity doesn’t exhaust our planet’s finite resources by allowing us to live at least a part of our lives in a virtual world? Its biggest boosters are convinced the metaverse will completely change the way we function, with positive environmental implications. Others contend it may only hasten our climate-driven demise. We suspect the truth rests, as it usually does, in the middle.
Metaverse to the rescue?
The main argument for the metaverse fuelling positive environmental impact is that as it enables people to spend more of their lives online there will ostensibly be less time or inclination to indulge in the more carbon-intensive activities of the physical world.
Take transportation, which currently accounts for more than 25% of all emissions in the United States alone, with planes and automobiles among the largest contributors. For companies and executives concerned about the sustainability consequences of commuting or their jet-setting ways, the metaverse could offer opportunities to negotiate and strike deals halfway around the world with a far smaller fossil fuel footprint, and a higher-quality, three-dimensional interaction than what’s offered by the typical video conference call.
Digital spaces created in the metaverse could also reduce the need for new buildings – whose operations, including ventilation and lighting systems, are estimated to contribute nearly 30% of global emissions – helping cities reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least half. An even more fanciful - for now - scenario visualises a future where consumers spend more on accessorising their virtual avatars than their physical selves, thereby easing the environmental impact of the fashion industry, which, by some estimates, accounts for as much as 10% of global emissions.
Overall, as EY's Global CTO notes, the metaverse offers the potential to protect our planet "through the substitution of physical goods by digital ones and replacing real-world presence with virtual interactions."
The carbon conundrum
However, more than a few sceptics have pointed out the metaverse may be something of a double-edged sword when it comes to climate change.
There’s no getting around the fact that building and maintaining an alternate universe will be massively energy-intensive, and that a huge boost in computing prowess and infrastructure will be needed before the metaverse can realistically replace physical experiences with digital ones at scale. In fact, Intel predicts that powering the metaverse will require a 1,000-fold increase in the world’s computing capacity.
Obviously, this is bad news for the climate. The data centres that power today’s technologies are already among the biggest carbon emitters and the fear is that, as companies ramp up computing capacity to build their presence in the metaverse, emissions will skyrocket. Data centres currently account for about 2% of global CO2 emissions but that number is projected to jump to 14% by 2040.
All that said, the debate over the metaverse’s environmental implications is far from settled. Efforts are already underway to decarbonise the metaverse, notably by building greener data centres, which, according to some projections, have managed to cut their energy usage in half. Meanwhile, some of the biggest technology giants betting on the metaverse have a laser focus on reducing emissions.
Microsoft, which is taking aim at the metaverse through its Mesh suite of collaborative technology products, cut its in-house emissions by 17% in 2021. Meta, the newly renamed parent company of social media giants Facebook and Instagram, has become one of the biggest corporate buyers of renewable energy as it bids to achieve net zero emissions across its value chain by 2030.
This is just as well given in the world’s biggest economy, a majority of people have already signaled their willingness to spend a significant part of their waking hours in the metaverse. The trend does not appear all that different in the rest of the world either. For that reason, it’s perhaps in all of our best interests to take a “glass half full” approach and root for the metaverse to become a powerful tool in the world’s fight against tackling climate change - because it does seem possible, and let’s face it, we will need all the help we can get.
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