If the metaverse is seen solely as a world where people can gather virtually without leaving their homes, it would seem like a boon for a net-zero future.
Scaling back commuting and travel would cut down carbon emissions. Simulations for everything from medical students performing surgeries, to companies onboarding employees, to factories tweaking their production lines would lead to financial and energy savings. In retail, for instance, augmented-reality fitting rooms have helped reduce clothing returns — and the waste associated with it — by up to 36%.
But this ignores the fact that the technology underpinning the metaverse is a large contributor of greenhouse gas emissions.
First-generation cryptocurrency requires users to validate transactions by solving a complicated mathematical problem. That requires massive amounts of computing , which requires a lot of electricity. Ethereum, a major crypto player that uses this proof of work validation scheme, as well as the blockchain underlying metaverse players such as Decentraland and Sandbox, use, by some estimates, 45,000 gigawatt hours per year.
But Ethereum is looking to transition to proof of stake with the launch of Ethereum 2.0, which would reduce its energy consumption by more than 99%. Later generation cryptocurrencies like Solana, PolkaDot, Cardano and others also use proof of stake, which will lead to lower energy consumption.
This is simply the underlying energy consumption of the metaverse. We haven’t yet factored in the e-waste generated by the metaverse’s access, experience and maintenance demands.
Think about it like this: To access the metaverse, users need digital devices. Building this technology requires energy and natural resources, such as finite metals. Then consumption patterns, driven by design and marketing, create an influx of e-waste as products are thrown away to make room for new releases.
To make the metaverse feel as immersive as possible requires large data center processing servers. These consume massive amounts of energy and increase carbon emissions. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for instance, found that training a common large AI model can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.
Brands that are committed to minimizing their environmental impact need to factor in the carbon footprint of any activity, including their marketing efforts, as a starting point. Data is energy and energy is carbon.
If sustainability and a net-zero future are central to a brand’s promise, it should do due diligence before hopping into the metaverse.
Laura Wade is VP, head of sustainability and Zoë Brook is a strategist at Essence.