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The metaverse is primed to transform the way we interact and conduct business, with the potential to impact every facet of the enterprise and the consumer experience.

But this will not come without implications for our physical environment. There is no question that the commerce models currently being established around the metaverse are problematic for our planet. 

Today a single Ethereum transaction consumes an average of 60% more energy than 100,000 credit card transactions, while an average Bitcoin transaction consumes 14 times more energy. The average NFT transaction produces 48 kilograms (105 pounds) of CO2, which is equivalent to burning 18 liters (4.75 gallons) of diesel. Despite this, the answers to the climate crisis in the real world might be found in a virtual one.

Sustainability in the metaverse: A critical balance

The metaverse holds the promise of substantial reductions in carbon emissions, whether through the substitution of physical goods with digital ones, replacing real-world presence with virtual interactions, or digital twins that will help us optimize the physical world — from the planet to individual humans. The immersive nature of metaverse experiences could also help overcome our behavioral barriers to climate action.

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Moreover, we can’t lose sight of the need for social sustainability, making the metaverse accessible, inclusive and equitable. 

As business leaders invest, develop new customer strategies, and transform to pursue the potential of the metaverse, better climate and social outcomes must be front and center during planning efforts. We must take a wider view to ensure that we bridge the gap between the costs and benefits of utilizing the metaverse. 

As adoption increases, it will become increasingly difficult to implement changes to make commerce in the metaverse sustainable. Whether this requires intervention by regulators, investors, consumers, stakeholders or other business leaders, time is of the essence before exponential growth makes it much more difficult. 

Substituting atoms for voxels

The immersive nature of the metaverse offers alternatives to resource-intensive physical goods which could drive consumer demand, thus resulting in sustainability benefits. 

It’s feasible that customers could shift their budgets for certain products to sustainable virtual options which require fewer resources to create and contribute less waste. This could be a remarkable development for waste-heavy industries, such as fast fashion, that contribute to overproduction and overconsumption. 

One of the most promising benefits of the metaverse could be found in business travel. Prior to the pandemic, air travel accounted for 2.5% of global emissions. Yet people soon learned that they could conduct meetings virtually. In the future, business meetings could be conducted in the metaverse, recreating some of the same benefits of in-person meetings while reducing the emissions of air travel for discretionary trips. 

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the metaverse for sustainability will be the ability to leverage the technology to better identify and implement carbon reduction plans. Digital twins can provide opportunities for us to optimize the physical world by examining it through the lens of a virtual world. A recent study revealed that a digital twin can reduce a building’s carbon emissions by 50%. Using digital twin technology, it’s possible to integrate a large set of data sources to make predictions on factors such as air pollution and carbon emissions and then identify actions to address these challenges. 

Overcome psychological barriers to climate action 

Interestingly, one of the biggest barriers to addressing climate change is behavioral. A 2019 study of 2 billion social media posts found that we quickly normalize climate conditions — which in turn, makes them easier to ignore: a far-off problem for another day. We simply have a short-term memory, and it’s difficult for us to understand the long-term ramifications of our lack of action against climate change. But this mindset is detrimental to our future.

A range of experiments related to virtual reality (VR) and climate and other sustainability issues has shown that immersive experiences yield better learning outcomes, more personalized impact and greater emotional engagement. For brands, allowing consumers to immerse themselves in a product’s sustainability journey and attributes may lead to preference, purchase and loyalty.

To build sustainability into the metaverse, center new virtual worlds on human well-being

In this moment, we must not focus only on how to build environmental sustainability into the metaverse. There’s opportunity to design the metaverse from the start for social inclusion and equity amongst many stakeholders. It will require intention, and broad and diverse collaborations between businesses, regulators, investors, academia, and civil society organizations. 

We also need collaboration between technology companies and the diverse array of potential users to understand what they really need and want from the technology. This can help make it more accessible and affordable and allow for equitable access to the metaverse.

Education, for example, is a domain where these strands of technology and stakeholder collaboration could come together to create inclusion and equity, and even help to close income gaps. Imagine the possibilities of a metaverse university offering the power of immersive experiences and virtual collaboration to young people, no matter their income or location.

There are multiple possible futures for the metaverse, and we have both the agency and solutions to create a future designed for environmental sustainability in the physical world and human flourishing in the virtual ones. Now is the time for businesses to lead in this critical moment, leveraging the metaverse’s innovation while at the same time convening power and investment.

This will ensure that the unsustainable practices of our physical world are not simply replicated or exacerbated in virtual worlds.

Nicola Morini Bianzino is CTO of EY Global.

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