• The arrival of the metaverse has created a digital world with apparently endless possibilities.
  • Analysts are worried the metaverse could lead to an influx of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Virtual reality technology and data centers use AI and cloud services, which require quite large amounts of energy.
  • Recycling e-waste, purchasing second-hand electronics, and streaming in SD could be three valuable ways to reduce the greenhouse emissions of the metaverse.

The metaverse may sound like a strange and distant concept, but the fact of the matter is that it already has a big presence in our society. And, like anything else, it's heavily impacting planet Earth. Despite the fact it's referring to a completely virtual part of our world, the metaverse — or the digital sect of our society — emits greenhouse gases just like anything else.

So, what exactly is the environmental impact of the metaverse?

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Hands pointing at a laptop screen and using a laptop trackpad
Meta is the new name of Facebook, since their brand makeover
Image: Unsplash/John Schnobrich

What is the metaverse?

"Metaverse" has kind of become a buzzword since Facebook changed its name to "Meta" in 2021, but in short, it's basically the convergence of the virtual, augmented, and digital worlds, according to Fortune. Platforms such as Sandbox, Mirandus, and Decentraland enable users to interact IRL and digitally. You get a "crypto-wallet," which uses real money for digital purchases. And while you can explore the metaverse with a regular computer, many are opting for VR devices such as Facebook's Oculus.

You create an avatar, customize it's ~lewk,~ and explore the world, digitally. You can see and interact with other real people, and travel wherever you want — seeing where others have traveled, too. You can also play games, and go to concerts. And yes, you can even make money.

The future of the metaverse is certainly vast, and although it's in the process of being developed, it's here. And it's definitely changing how we live.

A person working on their computer
The metaverse is accessible through computers, as well as VR devices
Image: Unsplash/Simon Abrams

What is the impact of the metaverse?

There are positive environmental aspects of the metaverse — some say the metaverse will lower the amount that people travel for business and for fun, and in turn, this will decrease pollution. However, it has its downsides. According to Data Quest, analysts are worried the metaverse could lead to an influx of greenhouse gas emissions. Virtual reality technology and data centers use AI and cloud services, which require quite large amounts of energy.

A recent study estimates that training just one AI model could generate 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, which is more than five times the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by a car its ints lifetime. Cloud gaming, which is necessary for VR, could also raise carbon emissions by 2030. And, it will increase the necessity for hi-res images, which only increases the need for more energy.

Supposedly, data centers like Facebook and Microsoft have promised to achieve net-zero emissions, though that likely means that instead of transitioning to cleaner means of energy, the company will simply make vague "environmental investments."

And, since the continuous development of VR will encourage people to buy new technology, that means for an influx in e-waste — which is polluting our soil, groundwater, and landfills.

A zoomed in view of wires plugged into a server
E-waste could increase if the development of more VR devices continues
Image: Unsplash/Jordan Harrison

What could we be doing to lower our metaverse impact?

Right now, it's mostly up to these major corporations to find eco-friendly means of building their virtual realities.

But to hold yourself accountable, make a commitment to properly recycling e-waste, and shopping for electronics secondhand. Also try to stream in SD — not HD — when using your phone to interact with the metaverse, as HD has a higher environmental impact and releases more carbon emissions.

Again, large corporations should be held accountable for this type of impact, but playing your part is important, too.

Green Matters’ new book, Green Living, is the perfect guide to living an eco-friendly lifestyle for people at every stage of the process. You can order Green Living here.