The metaverse, with its delivery of an expansive virtual reality for everyday interactions, gives people new options for connecting to work, shopping and socializing. But the metaverse's impact doesn't end there: This digital realm also affects the real-world environment.
Efforts to understand metaverse projects and their effects on sustainability are difficult to assess. Part of that comes from the fact that the metaverse itself isn't a specific thing or technology but rather a concept and a constellation of technologies. And part comes from the fact that assessing sustainability -- whether narrowly in terms of carbon emissions or in a more inclusive manner -- is itself a new area for many researchers and organizations. Still, it's important to examine and understand metaverse sustainability to the extent possible.
Computer industry experts consider the metaverse to be the next generation of the internet. It's built around a 3D virtual reality setting and frequently described as a persistent, immersive interactive digital world where people can engage with each other for work, education, entertainment and play as they move seamlessly between destinations.
As envisioned, users will be able to move from, for example, their offices to the shopping mall to tourist attractions from around the world, speaking and transacting as if together in reality, yet without ever leaving their physical locations. Users will immerse themselves in the metaverse environment via their computing devices and extended reality headsets, and seek sensation of touch via haptic technologies. Together, these technologies will deliver a user experience with the depth and sensations of the physical world. Transactions in the metaverse, such as purchases and transfers of digital items, will happen with cryptocurrencies and other blockchain-based platforms. Artificial intelligence will help support the metaverse experiences, with algorithms directing users to other individuals, products for sale and experiences that match their preferences.
"I describe the metaverse as the internet on steroids," said Todd Richmond, a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as well as the director of the Tech + Narrative Lab and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
The metaverse is not yet a reality, although some companies, such as Decentraland, Google, Meta and Roblox, have created virtual reality platforms that experts said are precursors to a fully immersive, interconnected digital world.
The resource-hungry metaverse
These early metaverse-type platforms provide indicators on the impact that the metaverse will have on the real-world environment. Its requirements for more hardware, low latency and high compute power provoke concerns about the natural resources needed to fill those requirements.
Sustainability discussions about today's metaverse-type experiences often center on the high energy requirements. Future metaverse platforms will be more complex, likely with even higher energy needs and an attendant increase in carbon emissions. Getting a true picture of the metaverse's environmental impact is not possible due to the lack of a single metaverse model, the rapidity with which technologies are developing and the lack of insight into the environmental costs of those technologies. But researchers have begun to estimate environmental impacts of metaverse-like and virtual reality platforms.
For example, if 30% of gamers move to cloud gaming platforms by 2030, there will be a 30% increase in carbon emissions, Lancaster University researchers estimated in a 2020 study.
And Intel has estimated that "truly persistent and immersive computing, at scale and accessible by billions of humans in real time, will require … a 1,000-times increase in computational efficiency," in a 2021 article titled "Powering the Metaverse."
In other words, using the metaverse requires more and better technology.
There are growing concerns about the environmental impact associated with the increasing demands for hardware, said Edwina Fitzmaurice, who focuses on metaverse efforts at EY as the company's chief customer success officer. Users will need specialized equipment such as headsets, and cloud computing providers will have to implement more capacity to handle the anticipated spike in demand for compute power.
"That then goes to sourcing of the equipment and everything that goes with it -- the supply chain, manufacturing, transportation -- and whether all that is sustainable," Fitzmaurice said.
Some are also questioning the impact of all that equipment as it reaches the end of its lifecycle, noting that the growing volume of electronic waste -- or e-waste -- has already become a significant problem.
Murkiness of the larger ESG and sustainability landscape
More companies and consumers are interested in understanding the environmental impact of their choices. And some companies are calculating their environmental impact as part of their environmental, social and governance (ESG) reports -- either because those reports are regulatory requirements or because customers and partners are asking for them.
Some companies are also focused on their environmental impact and making more environmentally sustainable choices because they have an economic incentive to do so. For example, more cloud computing companies report they are designing their server farms for energy efficiency and turning to more renewable energy sources.
Todd RichmondMember of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School
However, experts said that executives -- and certainly individual tech users -- face challenges in trying to get a full and accurate picture of the environmental impact of their tech choices, especially when talking about an emerging technology such as the metaverse, where information can be opaque or even nonexistent.
To start, companies may selectively share information about their sustainability efforts -- particularly if they're private entities and, thus, exempt from public company ESG reporting requirements, Fitzmaurice said.
In addition, companies developing metaverse platforms have a vested interest in emphasizing any potential positive benefits.
Some companies engage in greenwashing, either by being selective in what they share or by making unsubstantiated claims about their sustainability efforts. Companies may not fully assess their supply chain or accurately count carbon offsets -- resulting in published evaluations that are rosier than reality.
"We've had internal conversations in our lab and with our students about net zero and how you calculate them, and my sense is a lot of net-zero calculations are deeply flawed," Richmond said.
Can metaverse platforms help sustainability?
Some industry experts believe that the metaverse could provide some benefits to the environment.
For example, the metaverse industry could potentially help to lower greenhouse gas emissions to a small extent, primarily by helping to lower business and personal travel, according to the study "Growing Metaverse Sector Can Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 10 Gt CO2e in the United States by 2050," published June 14 in Energy and Environmental Science.
"[The metaverse] could do a little bit if we leverage it in a reasonable way," Fengqi You, the Roxanne E. and Michael J. Zak Professor in Energy Systems Engineering at Cornell Engineering and the paper's senior author, told the Cornell Chronicle.
Meta and Microsoft, two metaverse platform makers, contributed to the studies, according to the article.
EY has explored the travel reduction benefits of metaverse projects.
"We do see with the metaverse an opportunity to do things differently," Fitzmaurice said.
EY has used a metaverse platform to train and onboard interns, with interns accessing the platform from their individual geographic locations rather than flying to a single destination for the training.
"We got good feedback, too, and we were able to do new things, such as gamification," she added. "We had such good feedback we're going to roll it out across the organization."
Still, she and others questioned whether the potential positives are enough to offset the potential negatives. They pointed out that even as tech companies increase data center efficiencies and switch to renewable energy sources, other aspects of the metaverse such as Bitcoin-based transactions remain inefficient and heavy on energy consumption.
As it stands, many of those in the metaverse arena -- both the companies creating the platforms and the companies and individuals using it -- primarily focus not on sustainability, but rather on issues such as usability, low latency, privacy, security and user experience.
However, in order to effectively address sustainability concerns, stakeholders will need to focus more on the environmental and broader sustainability costs of their metaverse projects. Even where those projects are intended to address environmental issues -- such as reducing travel -- it will be critical to weigh the costs of using the various technological components to truly understand whether a project has a net positive or net negative effect on sustainability.