Industrial Metaverse: A New Frontier for Sustainability

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As the world becomes more digital, the concept of the industrial metaverse has emerged as a potential game-changer for various industries. However, with any new technology, it is important to consider the potential environmental impact.

The metaverse, being a virtual reality-based digital world, requires large amounts of energy to power and maintain. This is where the sustainability of the metaverse comes into question.

In this article, we will discuss the potential of the metaverse in sustainability, waste management, and environmental impact. 

The Metaverse’s Carbon Footprint

The metaverse relies on two key technologies: data acquisition and virtual reality.

  • Data acquisition involves capturing the shape and appearance of real-world objects using cameras or laser scanners,
  • Virtual reality involves creating digital objects to recreate physical worlds. These techniques are computationally expensive and require large amounts of energy.

This consumption could increase with the creation of persistent virtual worlds by both brands and tech giants, leading directly to a thousand-fold increase in computing power, as estimated by Intel. 

Furthermore, it raises concerns about the metaverse’s sustainability, as the energy consumption needed to power such a world could harm the environment.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts estimated in their study that the carbon footprint of training just one AI model for the metaverse could generate 284 tons of carbon dioxide.

This is equal to the emissions of more than five average American cars throughout their lifetime, including manufacturing.

Additionally, cloud computing, which is essential for virtual reality, online gaming, and high-resolution image processing, has the potential to increase carbon emissions significantly.

In short, the metaverse and the technologies related to it are energy-intensive. As demand for the metaverse and related technologies increases, so does the energy required to power it. 

How to Minimize the Environmental Impact of the Metaverse

When it comes to energy consumption, data centers are a significant contributor. These facilities are responsible for storing and processing the vast amount of data needed to support the metaverse.

In addition, cloud computing, which is necessary for virtual reality, high-resolution image processing, and online gaming, could also significantly raise carbon emissions.

One solution to this problem is to implement virtual renewable energy systems, such as virtual solar and wind power, to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decrease carbon emissions.

Industry leaders like Google, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Meta, AT&T, and Oracle are building new all-in-one prefabricated modular data centers across the globe. These will provide most of the horsepower for the IT needs of the future.

This remains to be further investigated at the practical level. For instance, Meta has committed to fully transitioning to renewable energy and having net zero emissions by 2030.

Likewise, Microsoft is also dedicated to utilizing renewable energy for its Azure cloud platform by 2025 and targeting carbon neutrality by 2030.

However, implementing these systems in the virtual space may be less efficient and cost-effective than physical systems. 

The Industrial Metaverse and Waste Management

Current waste management practices in the metaverse are still in the early stages of development. However, there are already examples of successful initiatives demonstrating virtual waste management’s potential.

For example, virtual recycling programs allow players to recycle virtual items and materials, creating new virtual products and reducing the need for new resources. Additionally, virtual upcycling programs allow players to repurpose existing virtual items, giving them new life and value.

However, the complexity of recycling electronics is a well-known issue. Statistics show that less than a quarter of electronic waste in the United States is recycled, with the majority ending up in landfills.

Video source: YouTube/Interesting Engineering

According to Statista, projections indicate that by 2030, annual e-waste generation worldwide will have built up by approximately 30 percent. Aspects such as increased spending power and the availability of electronics have fueled this boost, making e-waste the fastest-growing waste stream worldwide.

All this poses a significant challenge for organizations looking to upgrade their data storage. So how can companies reduce e-waste? The answer lies in finding a way to safely and sustainably dispose of existing technology.

Responsibly managing electronic waste can save businesses money and develop sustainability practices. By minimizing unnecessary purchases, donating items, repairing electronics, and partnering with a reputable recycling company, they can seamlessly handle the disposal of e-waste.

The Metaverse Sustainability Challenges

The corporate world will face numerous challenges as the metaverse becomes further integrated with the real world. Among others, a challenge in preparing for the next stage of digitization, with its associated storage demands, while prioritizing sustainability.

However, if we look at the industry, most businesses are still beginning their digitalization journey. In particular, medium- and small-sized companies still have a substantial transformational course ahead of them. 

Measuring and Verifying Carbon Emissions

Another issue the metaverse has is measuring and verifying carbon emissions. A majority of companies’ carbon emissions come from their supply chains, which account for around 60% of global carbon emissions, according to Accenture.

Video source: YouTube/Accenture

As a result, many executives are looking to make their digital supply chains more sustainable but often need more visibility, technology, or programs to measure and make real progress.

The metaverse offers intelligent planning tools that can provide greater insight into sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) matters. It allows for mapping out the entire life cycle of a product and calculating its environmental footprint.

Also, they have the potential to test and make tweaks to reduce it. Additionally, the metaverse can be used to try and design facilities to be more energy-efficient. 

Non-Fungible Token Technolofy and Cryptocurrency

Non-fungible token (NFT) technology and cryptocurrency in the metaverse can also negatively impact the environment.

For example, the energy consumption of Bitcoin and Ethereum mining is estimated to be over 300 terawatt-hours per year. This is higher than the total energy consumption of all global data centers combined.

This means that the commercial processes currently taking place on Web 2.0 are more damaging on Web 3.0, making it difficult for brands with sustainable aspirations to justify the move to the metaverse. 

Legislation and Virtual Consumption

In addition to energy consumption and carbon emissions, the metaverse also presents legislation and virtual consumption challenges. Navigating legislation in the metaverse will be highly challenging, as the metaverse ecosystem is ubiquitous.

Moreover, deciding which law applies and which jurisdiction proceedings need to be held will be hard.

Furthermore, labor law will become increasingly complex, as employees may want to live in a greener or more affordable countries but still benefit from the same standard of protection they are used to.

How to Prepare for Sustainability in the Industrial Metaverse

Companies that are prepared for sustainability in the industrial metaverse will be better positioned to capitalize on the opportunities of this technology while minimizing its environmental impact. 

Here’s  companies can prepare for the metaverse without contributing to environmental waste: 

Adopting Sustainable Climate Goals

To work towards minimizing their carbon footprint and promoting environmentally-friendly practices, companies need to set clear climate goals and commit to sustainable initiatives.

One way to do this is to build a culture of trust and transparency that prioritizes sustainability.

This can include implementing policies and procedures to ensure operations are conducted environmentally-friendly and regularly reporting on progress towards sustainability goals.

By fostering a culture that values sustainability, companies can encourage employees to make sustainable choices and work together to minimize the metaverse’s carbon footprint.

Another approach is participating in initiatives like the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi). This is an alliance of non-profit organizations, including CDP, the World Resources Institute, the UN Global Compact, and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Companies that join this initiative are committed to fighting climate change in line with the latest scientific research. By setting emissions reduction targets approved by the SBTi, companies can take concrete steps toward reducing their environmental impact.

Using Cloud Services and Renewable Energy

When it comes to the metaverse, one of the biggest concerns is the amount of data that needs to be stored. With such large amounts of data comes the potential for constructing more energy-consuming data centers.

However, utilizing cloud services can minimize the number of physical data centers. Many large cloud service providers like Google have already begun investing in sustainable energy sources. They plan to run their data centers on completely carbon-free energy by 2030.

Another way to combat carbon emissions is by investing in renewable energy sources. For instance, Apple and Amazon have reconstructed their facilities with solar panels to generate power on-site.

By doing this, these companies can draw less traditional energy away from the grid, thus reducing their carbon footprint. In addition, with the combination of other renewable energy procurement, these locations now run solely on renewable energy. 

Evaluating the Environmental Impact of Products

Every part of a product’s life cycle can uniquely impact the environment.

That is why numerous companies are already developing product life cycle assessments to evaluate the general environmental impact generated by production, usage, and disposal procedures. The objective is to track a product’s timeline and ensure full accountability and transparency.

The storage industry has slowly evolved from traditional local disk- to cloud data storage. As more businesses relocate to the cloud, the data center industry can become more climate-conscious.

In addition, cloud computing implies higher data redundancy and lower costs per gigabyte, which makes it a good-enough technical reason for expanding the cloud. 

Establishing the Circular Economy

The circular economy is a financial model that aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extracting their maximum value before recovering and regenerating them.

This approach contrasts with the traditional linear economy, where resources are removed, used, and discarded as waste.

In the industrial metaverse, the circular economy can be enforced in several ways to minimize companies’ carbon footprint:

  • Virtual and augmented reality technology. This enables the  designing and testing of products before they are manufactured. By simulating the production process and the use of resources, companies can identify ways to optimize their operations and reduce waste. In addition, virtual reality can also be used to train employees on how to operate equipment more efficiently, reducing energy consumption and emissions.
  • Digital twin technology. This allows companies to create virtual copies of their physical assets and monitor their real-time performance. The technology can be used to optimize the maintenance and repair of equipment, reducing downtime and energy consumption.
  • Product take-back program implementation. This permits customers to return their old products to the company for recycling or proper disposal.

These programs not only reduce waste but also promote the recycling of materials, reducing the need for new resources and the associated environmental impact. 

Metaverse Sustainability: Key Takeaways

The industrial metaverse has the potential to transform various industries and bring about new opportunities for growth and innovation. However, as with any new technology, it is essential to consider the potential environmental impact.

 Some of the metaverse sustainability challenges include:

  • Measuring and verifying carbon emissions
  • Non-fungible token technology and cryptocurrency
  • Legislation and virtual consumption

To prepare for sustainability in the metaverse, organizations should:

  • Adopt sustainable climate goals
  • Use cloud services and renewable energy
  • Evaluate the environmental impact of products
  • Establish a circular economy

It is evident that there is still a great deal to be explored and understood about the industrial metaverse. Still, there are already steps that can be taken to minimize its environmental impact.

As the metaverse persists in evolving and gaining momentum, it will be necessary for companies to prioritize sustainability and explore new ways to balance technological advancements with environmental stewardship.

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Neil Sahota
Neil Sahota (萨冠军) is an IBM Master Inventor, United Nations (UN) Artificial Intelligence (AI) Advisor, author of the best-seller Own the AI Revolution and sought-after speaker. With 20+ years of business experience, Neil works to inspire clients and business partners to foster innovation and develop next generation products/solutions powered by AI.