A virtual world at the expense of a green world
The digitalization of society is one of the main factors of the climate crisis. According to a Green IT study, the digital sector will represent 4% of the world’s anthropogenic carbon footprint in 2022. The metaverse represents an energy-intensive project to be developed on a global scale. On the other hand, it can be a way to reduce energy consumption.
- An energy-intensive project
The metaverse requires a large number of resources to make the project possible. The massive processing of data and the potential number of users means that new infrastructures must be put in place and a large amount of energy consumed. As a comparison, Nicholas G. Carr, author and specialist in technology, tried to find out the average consumption of an avatar on the virtual network Second Life. Results, a virtual being consumes twice as much energy as an average Algerian (1752 kWh per year).
These needs are also expressed by the need for a large computing power. If it has been multiplied by 6 between 2010 and 2018 in the data centers, the senior vice president of Intel, Raja Koduri, says that the current power must be multiplied by 1000 to create a metaverse accessible by billions of people. Avatar quality and realistic environments undoubtedly consume more power.
But still, the metaverse requires energy consuming technologies such as the blockchain. Essential for storing NFTs and running cryptocurrencies, the blockchain is very energy intensive. There are nearly 1,500 different cryptocurrencies. If we take the example of the Bitcoin cryptocurrency (note that it is the most energy-intensive cryptocurrency), its consumption can be comparable to the equivalent of the electricity production of 4 nuclear power plants or the equivalent of the annual electricity consumption of Ireland.
Furthermore, the massive processing and collection of data requires the creation of many more data centers than exist today. These infrastructures are so energy-intensive that 1/4 of the greenhouse gases produced by the digital industry come from data centers.
Entering the virtual world requires consuming scarce resources to produce state-of-the-art hardware. The UNEP indicates in a report that the demand for materials has increased by 87% (up to 6 billion tons) and that future trends promise increases of between 300 and 900%.
It seems impossible to reconcile economic issues (infinite growth) and ecological issues (physical limits). Nevertheless, many techniques are developed to regulate energy consumption in order to allow progress. Assuming that the metaverse is born and is induced in our life habits, the question arises whether this technology comes to add to the existing consumptions or to replace them.
- Replacement or accumulation
As previously stated, the metaverse relies on many energy-intensive technologies and infrastructures. However, their development is constantly being rethought in order to reduce their environmental impact.
Regarding infrastructures, data centers tend to have a neutral environmental impact. The average PUE (power usage effectiveness), which measures the effectiveness of data center energy consumption, is currently between 1.5 and 2.5. This result has been halved in the last 20 years. In addition, several projects are achieving a PUE of 1 and are therefore energy neutral. For example, Meta has a data center in the Arctic Circle to have air below 0°C. The air acts as artificial cooling and achieves a PUE of 1.07. Also, as part of the Natick project, Microsoft immerses servers in the sea in the north of Scotland. The results are encouraging as it was noticed that the machines were less damaged and more reliable due to the absence of humans and oxygen.
At the level of the blockchain, the storage space for cryptocurrencies and NFT, techniques are being developed to reduce energy consumption. The method of validation of blocks is indeed questioned. In general, the method used consists in solving a mathematical puzzle by a large computing power (see Point n°2 – The blockchain) called proof of work. Here, the solution envisaged is to entrust in a random way the validation of a block to a group of individuals. The individuals are chosen daily according to their wealth in token. The Ethereum platform thus ensures a 99.95% reduction in energy consumption with this mechanism.
Moreover, in a distant and hypothetical future, we can assume that users invest a lot of time in the virtual world. Also, the metaverse may replace the internet and become part of our life habits. As a result, the platforms present on the web and especially the streaming platforms such as YouTube, Netflix and Twitch will be watched in virtual reality.
Moreover, virtual reality brings a practical and attractive communication system so that the expenses of transport and material will be reduced. For example, a conference in San Francisco with hundreds of researchers was held online in 2020. It was calculated that this conference would have been 66 times more polluting if it had been held in person.
Finally, in a universe similar to the movie Ready Player One where users live more in a virtual world, we can imagine a decrease of the physical world with a reduction of manufactured products and more sober habitats.
The metaverse project is a daring one in every respect. It is difficult to believe in it at this stage and in view of the resources it requires. However, should it come to fruition, the metaverse can revolutionize and constitute a sustainable environment.
Master 2 Droit de l’économie numérique
Faculté de droit, de sciences politiques et de gestion de Strasbourg