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Virtual worlds, real emissions: building an environmentally sustainable Metaverse

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By Vasanth Seshadri

· 4 min read

We hear a lot about the Metaverse today. Though it was first coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, it exploded in popularity starting from 2021, as evidenced by search volume and academic papers containing the term.

The Metaverse can mean many things. It could mean fully immersive virtual worlds, or augmented reality that blurs the lines between truth and fiction, or marketplaces for NFTs.

A little-talked-about aspect of these various iterations of the Metaverse is their environmental impact.

Many small-m metaverses (self-contained virtual worlds as opposed to the overarching big-M Metaverse that’s in the process of being built) run on cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Dogecoin or AXS. The reason cryptocurrencies have the term “crypto” in them is that they are mined by solving complex cryptographic puzzles computationally. This requires a tremendous amount of computational power which generates massive carbon emissions.

And then, there’s the enormous world of NFTs. Whether it’s NFT art such as the thousands of pieces by Mike Winkelmann (better known as Beeple) or NFT-ized videos such as the basketball highlights sold as NFTs on NBA’s Top Shot, a huge number of transactions take place every day. Some of these transactions are about minting NFTs (i.e. publishing the digital asset on the Blockchain to create the NFT in the first place) whereas some are about buying and selling them in the secondary market. These transactions all need to be validated by the Blockchain.

One of the two ways of validating these transactions is the Proof-of-Work protocol. This involves computers that solve complex cryptographic puzzles, similar to the process of mining cryptocurrencies. As discussed above, solving these cryptographic puzzles is computationally very intensive, which means enormous carbon emissions.

Thankfully, there’s a different protocol called Proof-of-Stake which is not about solving cryptographic puzzles but about how much stake (in terms of the quantity of the associated cryptocurrency) each validating entity possesses. The carbon emissions associated with Proof-of-Stake are much lower, even millions of times lower according to some sources.

However, the Ethereum blockchain (on which 95% of NFTs are minted) has been following a Proof-of-Work protocol, which means that NFT minting, buying and selling thus far have been extremely computationally intensive and therefore emissions-intensive.

Due to the above-mentioned factors, politicians such as U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and EU Parliament member Eero Heinäluoma have been vocal about the carbon footprint of cryptocurrency and have called for accountability and a reduction of emissions from the sector.

The importance of cryptocurrency and NFTs to the Metaverse means that achieving an immediate greening of cryptocurrency and NFTs can make or break the future of the metaverse.

Thankfully, there is progress. The Ethereum blockchain is planning something called The Merge which is expected to take place in September 2022. This includes migrating its entire platform from Proof-of-Work to Proof-of-Stake. This is expected to deliver a substantial reduction in the carbon footprint associated with mining the ETH cryptocurrency and also with minting, buying and selling the astonishing number of NFTs that run on Ethereum.

And then, there’s the computational power needed to build entire virtual worlds.

According to many, the end-goal is to build one overarching big-M Metaverse akin to The Oasis in the book and movie Ready Player One or the eponymous matrix in The Matrix. It’s anybody’s guess just how much carbon will have to be burned to get there. Even an individual metaverse platform such as Roblox or Decentraland (technically not metaverses as they are centralized whereas the true Metaverse will be decentralized) generates ongoing carbon emissions each time a user performs an activity.

As the technology to build the Metaverse (or metaverses) advances, it’s critically important that we build sustainability into the innovation process to find green ways to create this brave new world.

Green data centres powered by renewable energy are one way. As billions of people enter the Metaverse and each user has a dynamic “state” or circumstances that need to be preserved the next time they log back on, data storage requirements will be stratospheric. Powering those data centres with polluting fossil fuels is out of the question. Renewables such as solar and wind will be the way to go. Which leads to the issue of intermittency that has plagued solar and wind thus far. Further innovation to improve storage of solar and wind power will be critical.

It’s also important for the builders of the Metaverse to incorporate the circular economy into everything they do. Recycling programs for electronic waste such as used servers and VR headsets need to be in place. Hazardous materials also need to be disposed of responsibly or recycled to the fullest extent possible to reduce their negative impact on the environment.

If we fail to take the necessary steps to green the Metaverse as we build it, we run the risk of emulating the least desirable aspect of Ready Player One: escaping into a virtual world because we’ve destroyed the real world through climate change.

Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Vasanth Seshadri runs the Singapore-based creative agency The Sunny Side. He is the author of the sustainability-themed novel The People from Beyond the Mountains.

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