While the metaverse has huge potential to change the way we live our lives, it is still in its infancy. It is vital therefore to understand now how this vast digital universe could hinder environmental sustainability so that we may tackle the issues from the get-go. In this short-form listicle, we examine the metaverse’s three biggest risks to sustainability, including the energy consumed by cloud computing data centres and the huge carbon emissions created by the registration of virtual assets such as NFTs. What discussions should the private and public sector be holding and what questions should the wider industry be asking to help avoid sustainability disaster and ensure Web 3.0 is designed and built responsibly?
Three questions shaping metaverse sustainability
The metaverse economy could be worth up to $13 trillion by 2030 according to a 2022 Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions report. With virtual meetings, retail and even travel set to become an experiential real-world alternative, it is argued that the metaverse could help improve sustainability by reducing the carbon footprint associated with traditional industries and activities.
It is, however, equally important to understand how and where the metaverse could hamper future environmental sustainability.
In late 2021, US-headquartered tech giant Intel predicted that the metaverse will need at least a thousand-fold increase in computing power, as well as improved and additional infrastructure to deliver a truly immersive experience accessible to billions of people around the world.
Which metaverse technologies consume the most energy?
Cryptocurrency and non-fungible token (NFT) technology is blockchain reliant, and this consumes a vast amount of energy. Bitcoin mining, globally, is reported to use energy at a rate of 127 terawatt-hours annually, according to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index. To put it into context, this currently exceeds Norway’s entire annual electricity consumption with a single blockchain transaction estimated to consume 60 per cent more energy than 100,000 credit card transactions.
Digital twinning is another area where the benefit of developing a virtual model designed to explore energy optimisation and savings in the real world, comes with a caveat: significant use of energy resources in order to accurately replicate the physical environment.
Storage for the increasing volume of metaverse-generated data will require businesses to expand existing or build new data centres, an energy-intensive undertaking. Cloud storage can minimise the number of physical data centres required, with Microsoft Corporation and WSP Global Inc. research reporting that cloud computing is 93 per cent more energy-efficient than in-house data centres.
This doesn’t mean that cloud service providers aren’t power hungry. Cloud data centres around the world consume colossal amounts of electricity. A 2021 study conducted by researchers at UK’s Lancaster University estimated that the cloud is responsible for 0.25-1.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
This is a major concern when considering that cloud computing is also a prerequisite for virtual reality applications, high-resolution image processing, and online gaming.
What role will the metaverse play in e-waste generation?
An inherent risk with the advent of immersive metaverse experiences is an expected increase in electronic waste.
In order to deliver high-performing 3D experiences, high-end Graphic Processing Units (GPUs) are also a fundamental requirement. Graphics card upgrades may be a necessity for access to the metaverse, for example, to be able to play high-resolution video games that require significant processing power.
Access to a new immersive, alternative reality won’t be driven through legacy mobile devices and laptops, rather they will be an enabler for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications.
Specialised VR headsets are readily available or under development, such as the Meta Quest Pro and Apple’s under development Vision Pro, which is due for release in early 2024. Combined with AR devices that plug the integration gap between the created and the physical, metaverse hardware is being constantly upgraded to offer improved functionality and experiential value.
Next generation AR-enabled smart glasses will also play a prominent role in enhancing the fully immersive metaverse experience.
Collectively, these elements are set to drive a wave of hardware demand but, at the same time, render various existing consumer devices obsolete or requiring hardware upgrades.
The result could see an increase in the volume of landfill-discarded e-waste amid a never-ending cycle of device replacement.
There is also the complex issue of electronics recycling. According to research published on statista.com, by 2030 annual e-waste generation worldwide will grow by approximately 30 per cent, making it the fastest-growing waste stream globally.
How can we make the metaverse more sustainable?
The huge amounts of energy required to power the metaverse could be addressed through adoption of renewable energy solutions, such as solar and wind power.
Both Apple, which has its own data centres as well as using third-party cloud storage services, and Amazon, have invested heavily in restructuring existing facilities to incorporate solar panels for onsite power generation and reduce grid dependency to improve their carbon footprint. Amazon is committed to powering its operations with 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025.
Cloud service mega-providers such as Google, are rolling out their own sustainability initiatives in order to make data storage more energy efficient. Google has partnered with Sustainable Energy for All and the United Nations to launch the new 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy Compact – a set of principles and actions that stakeholders across the energy ecosystem can take to adopt, enable, and advance 24/7 carbon-free energy.
The construction of prefabricated modular data centres is also a means to deliver a more energy-efficient alternative. The benefit of modular design is it negates the need to build to predict overcapacity, which increases overheads and the volume of wasted energy to power and cool what could essentially be a lot of unused space.
For effective e-waste management, as part of a commitment to proper product life cycle management, electronics companies will need to initiate efficient recycling or take-back programmes to help mitigate predicted future volume.
In September 2022, the world’s second-largest cryptocurrency platform, Ethereum, which promotes itself as a ‘green blockchain, reportedly reduced the energy costs of processing Ethereum transactions by 99.84 per cent. This was achieved through a network update that transitioned its proof of work (PoW) mining mechanism to a proof of stake (PoS) consensus mechanism.
A more radical way to encourage metaverse sustainability would be to look at platform design that does not require specialised hardware resources or significant computing power to operate.
Another approach would be to combine a large number of metaverse platforms into a centralised service offering shared and administered by various organisations. The idea of a ‘metaverse as a service’ concept supported by cloud providers would facilitate the opportunity to deliver on-demand metaverse environments through shared hosting platforms.