The next iteration of the internet is fast taking shape but making it a reality will require vast amounts of energy. Ensuring the future digital landscape doesn’t become an environmental nightmare means opting for renewables, accelerating the energy transition, and locking in a lower-emissions framework.
Run on networks that use consensus mechanisms such as blockchain, Web3 is a new decentralized version of the internet, which aims to give individuals more control over their data and experiences. Meanwhile, the metaverse is a yet-to-be-realized digital and immersive world that enables users to interact digitally, be that using crypto-wallets to make purchases or virtual reality headsets to explore experiences.
While both are digital, virtual spaces, they’re very much tethered to the physical world – thanks to the energy needed to power them.
Despite all of its futuristic promise, the basic building blocks of the new digital landscape are computers and servers, and a recent blog post from Intel suggests that our global computing infrastructure will need to be 1,000 times more powerful than it is today in order to comfortably sustain it. This comes at a heavy environmental cost.
In a study carried out in 2019, University of Massachusetts researchers calculated that training one large deep-learning model – for example, one that allows machines to work with natural language in a virtual environment – produces 626,000 lbs of planet-warming carbon dioxide or five times the lifetime emissions of an average car.
At the University of Lancaster, researchers ran a scenario to find out what would happen if just 30% of computer gamers moved to virtual cloud-based platforms by 2030, and found that carbon emissions would jump by almost a third.
Meanwhile, cryptocurrencies, which will underpin transactions in the new online world, have become notorious for their energy intensiveness, with the University of Cambridge finding that crypto mining can consume as much as 121.36 terawatt-hours a year, or more than the annual energy consumption of Argentina or the United Arab Emirates, while the New York Times calculates that bitcoin consumes roughly 0.5% of all energy worldwide.
In today’s energy mix, where the majority of electricity worldwide still comes from non-renewable sources, the huge increase in power use brought about by Web3 spells disaster for the planet.
Around the world, irreversible climate change is already underway, from hotter temperatures to more severe storms and droughts. According to the 2022 IPCC report, released earlier this year, humanity has a “narrowing window for action”, and if we are to secure a livable future, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions need to happen now.
The green way forward
However, before immediately writing off the metaverse and Web3 as an environmental disaster waiting to happen, it’s worth noting what Big Tech is doing to reconcile its own sustainability goals with the creation of a fully immersive digital landscape. Amazon Web Services (AWS), which provides cloud computing solutions for nearly a third of all web applications today, says it will power its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025. Google has pledged to use 24/7 carbon-free energy in all its datacenters by 2030. Microsoft intends to be carbon negative by 2030, as well as halting the use of diesel in its datacenter generators. Meanwhile, Meta – which changed its name from Facebook to demonstrate just how much it believes in the metaverse – says that by 2030, it will reach net-zero emissions across its own operations and its value chain.
What’s more, clean energy is increasingly being used to power cryptocurrency activities, with a report from the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance finding that nearly 40% of proof-of-work mining is powered by renewables. This is thanks in part to the fact that renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels in most markets around the world, while fossil fuels are only set to become more expensive over time. Another positive sign can be found in the Crypto Climate Accord, inspired by the Paris Agreement. The industry-driven pact’s signatories have vowed to switch to renewable energy sources by 2025 and go completely net-zero, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions altogether, by 2040.
This proliferation of commitments is already outpacing our world’s transition to renewable energy, driving up demand for a greater percentage of the grid to come from clean resources.
To meet this demand, a decentralized digital world needs decentralized energy sources. Crypto farms will need to be co-located with renewable generation and mining when there is an abundance of energy. Data centers are already entering into direct corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs) with renewable energy suppliers, enabling them to increase their actual use of clean power faster than if they relied upon the grid alone. Digital mining activities have locational flexibility, as has been shown by redeployment of its activity in response to regulatory changes, this means that digital mining activities can pursue the best geographies in terms of abundant and competitive renewable energy.
Paving the way for a sustainable future
Ensuring that the metaverse and Web3 are powered by clean energy enables the truly transformative power of the new online world to take effect. Forward-thinking individuals who care about the future of the planet are already designing radical new ways for people and companies to be more sustainable via the new tech – from digital carbon credit coins to allow anyone to access carbon trading markets to non-fungible tokens that fund the planting of enough mangroves to sequester 20 million tons of carbon over the next 25 years.
While it’s true that – as things stand today – wide-scale adoption of the metaverse and Web3 would drive emissions up to dangerous levels, all indicators point to the companies involved choosing to combat these environmental challenges. The only viable option to power the future online world is renewables, and this huge surge in demand will drive enormous adoption of clean power, accelerating the energy transition for a better, more sustainable future.
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