The metaverse, if seen solely as a virtual world where people can gather without leaving home, would seem like a boon for a net-zero future. Scaling back commuting and work travel would cut down carbon emissions. Beyond that, simulations for everything from medical students performing surgeries to employees being onboarded to factories tweaking production lines would realize ﬁnancial and energy savings. In retail, it’s been shown that augmented-reality ﬁtting rooms help reduce the return of clothing — and the waste associated with it — by up to 36 percent. But then there’s the issue of the underlying technology: it 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,and which is the underlying blockchain of metaverse players like Decentraland and Sandbox, uses by some estimates 45,000 gigawatt hours per year. Ethereum is also one of the predominant crypto players in the NFT sector.
But Ethereum is looking to transition to “proof of stake” with the launch of Ethereum 2.0, which would reduce its energy consumption by 99.5 percent when it ﬁnally rolls out. Later generation cryptocurrencies like Solana, Polkadot, Cardano, and others also use “proof of stake,” which will lead to lower energy consumption.
Keep in mind that this is simply the underlying energy consumption of the metaverse and doesn’t factor in the power or e-waste generated by the access, experience, and maintenance demands of the metaverse.
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 the consumption patterns of consumers, driven by design and marketing, create an inﬂux of e-waste as products are thrown away to make room for new releases.
Making the metaverse feel as immersive as possible requires large datacenter processing servers. These all consume massive amounts of energy and translate to an increase in carbon emissions. For example, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that training a common large AI model can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.
Brands 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.
Authors: Laura Wade (VP, head of sustainability at Essence), Zoë Brook (strategist)