With Good Planning, can the Metaverse be Sustainable?
The Metaverse is a mystery to so many of us. It’s misquoted, misrepresented, and fundamentally misunderstood. The problem is that it means so many things to so many different people, and like so many new ideas in technology, we find this meaning can get lost in the oceans of marketing buzzwords and acronyms that represent the leading indicators of where the future is heading. Ultimately, these acronyms and buzzwords morph into our day-to-day language with the same ease as the technology blends into our day-to-day lives. The trouble is no one knows exactly when these days of convergence will arrive.
This lack of formal structure presents some major challenges. Not only does it make it difficult to judge the effective timing for any investments, but it also creates a challenge for any form of effective planning for mainstream adoption. That said, there is one good thing to come out of all the uncertainty. It buys us time to plan for some of the key things that perhaps everyone understands - how do we ensure the Metaverse is eco-friendly and sustainable?
In this article, we want to explore how sustainable the Metaverse is likely to be and to see if there are plans we can implement while we have time to ensure that the brave new world helps repair our existing one.
What is the Metaverse?
At its very core, the Metaverse brings multiple technologies together. Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Gaming are all set to converge, supported, in part at least, by the financial layers of the blockchain. Collectively, it is here that we will see the next version of the internet - web3. Instead of us being on the internet, we will be in the internet.
In theory, we will all be immersed in new shared experiences. Initially, we will likely share these experiences through the very insular VR headsets. While we can already see AR through our mobile phones and tablets, ultimately we will be able to have a broader experience where we blend virtual worlds with our present through AR glasses. These are currently under development by Apple and are set to launch in around 2025. This means richer experiences for consumers and brands alike.
Where are the Environmental Pressure Points?
With the Metaverse bringing together so many technologies, there will be so much more computational power required to power the infrastructure that underpins it. Not only will we require extra computational power to enable the servers to serve up multi-user, 3-Dimensional experiences at the same time, but we will also need increased computational power to power consumer-based VR headsets. We will also be running intensive games on more powerful desktops and laptops. Most notably perhaps, we will also see exponential growth in the volume of data created, which brands will see as their passport to enhanced sales that will drive the financial narrative of the Metaverse.
All this additional activity will see an exponential rise in the number of data centres needed to house the servers that provide the core Metaverse infrastructure.
Data storage providers
In August ‘22 Fortune Business Insights published a report projecting the global cloud storage market is set to grow by 24% CAGR for the period 2022 - 29 reaching USD 376.37 billion in 2029. The challenge is that all cloud storage companies require data centres to house their server farms. These all need to be powered by electricity that is primarily used to cool the heat generated by the servers. This electricity usage places pressure on sustainability.
Data centres, as an industry, have been very proactive in their approach toward sustainability. So much so that they have established the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact. Data centre operators and trade associations have come together in a formalised association to commit to the European Green Deal. Under the Pact, the association has agreed that they wish to be part of a sustainable future, with all members within the pact agreeing to make their data centres climate-neutral by 2030. You can see from the list of Pact members, that many major names such as AWS, Microsoft, IBM and Google are included.
The Blockchains and the Metaverse
Blockchain aims to power the financial layers of the Metaverse, primarily through cryptocurrencies. Within the blockchain space, there has been a major shift toward sustainability. When Bitcoin first launched in 2009 it was innovation that drove its very early growth. It was initially seen as a potential disruptor of the banking system. Its security system also rewarded those that provided the infrastructure, through the release of Bitcoin. The process by which Bitcoin is mined is through a structure called proof of work (POW).
POW requires competing computers around the globe to solve a cryptographic puzzle. It is those that have access to the greatest amount of collective computing power that are the ones who solve the puzzle first and get rewarded with 6.25 bitcoin. As a result, Bitcoin miners have warehouses full of computers trying to solve this problem, which creates a negative environmental effect through the excessive use of electricity in the same way that data centres have their problems. You can check out more on this topic in the FinTech Weekly article on Bitcoin and sustainability. Not all blockchains, however, follow the Bitcoin model.
Newer blockchains like Algorand and Solana, amongst many others, use a process called Proof of Stake which dispenses with the need to mine their cryptocurrencies with warehouses of computers. As a result, a number of blockchains are already proud to be at the very least carbon neutral with some even carbon negative. With Ethereum, the second largest cryptocurrency, currently transitioning across to proof of stake, the majority of cryptocurrencies and blockchains that may be used to power the financial layer of the Metaverse are likely to be heading toward sustainable structures in the medium term.
Electronic waste (e-waste)
E-waste is a continuing problem for the world of technology and will be a major threat to sustainability for the Metaverse. It is estimated by the World Counts that we generate 40m tons of electronic waste per annum, with only 12.5% recycled, and 85% sent to landfills, which are then burned, releasing toxins into the air. Undoubtedly, the Metaverse will see a step change in technological growth as consumer headsets, phones, AR glasses, and other technology devices get faster and faster and become more and more disposable as the next iteration of the technology is released.
In so many ways, this is where the biggest source of challenges lies for Metaverse’s sustainability. Increased pressure will undoubtedly be brought to bear on manufacturers to instigate enhanced recycling. This is already beginning to happen, as reported by Forbes in October ‘21. Both Apple and Microsoft are being proactive in their approach by deploying recycling initiatives - typically by giving credit against a new product and helping to dispose of the old technology appropriately.
The Metaverse is still very early, and it is very difficult to predict exactly where all the sustainability issues will finish up. On the positive side, the major data centres have already committed to sustainability with their commitment to neutrality by 2030. This is further supported by the ever-improving sustainability of the blockchain infrastructure, which is likely to be part of the financial layers empowering the Metaverse.
It is the e-waste issue, however, that is the most concerning issue, with only 12.5% of e-waste currently being recycled. These numbers overall have to improve if the Metaverse is to be truly sustainable. There is no doubt there will be some major environmental backlash from consumers who will want to see enhanced sustainability. Some manufacturers are leading the way by showing an increased commitment to recycling, and perhaps the only way to improve their commitment to recycling further is to make it happen by persuading consumers to vote with their consciences, their feet, and ultimately their wallets.
On balance, many inroads have already been made towards making the Metaverse sustainable for all to enjoy responsibly.
Tim Lea, is a strategic content creator and author of the book Down the RabbitHole, a book on the blockchain in plain English, an international keynote speaker on the strategic applications of the blockchain, and deeply passionate about sustainability.