Metaverse might just solve climate change

NOTE. The metaverse in this article is meant as a term used to describe a social 3D virtual world/economy in general and not Facebook’s recent rebranding.

For the longest I was somewhat pessimistic about how realistic the climate change fight is. First of all, there are a lot of prematurely optimistic headlines floated by the media on how a solid progress is being made. However, CO2 capture, renewable energy, pledges made during climate change conferences and so on, they all might look hopeful summarized in a title, but once looked under the hood, one quickly realizes how much work in progress they all are. Second, it is human nature not to care until the last minute, consuming and being hypocritical. Everyone is pointing fingers into the oil & gas industry and calling them the villain, because somebody needs to take the blame, it is surely not Us who are responsible, right? Nobody wants to use public transport, we are constantly gorging on cheap fashion and useless crap on Amazon, constantly just staring at our phones. We pretend to be super concerned about the environment but also need to “travel the world”, eat meat and so on. Finally and most cynical of all, the aforementioned consumerism is not a bug in our system, it is actually a feature, this is how the system is designed to operate. If we were to stop consuming, GDP would drop and we would have a recession, that would eventually turn into a depression, society would fragment, order would fall apart and we would end up with a bloodbath. In short, we find ourselves in a deadlock – if we continue to consume we are screwed, if we stop consuming we are also screwed, just faster and with a higher guarentee.

Seems like a dead end? Maybe not. Lockdowns have shown that a -6.4% change in CO2 emissions compared to 2019 can be actually achieved at any time just if we stayed at home. We have actually for the first time come very close to the -7.6% emissions target set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The drop in emissions was mostly contributed by reductions in transportation: aviation decreased by 75%, surface transport by 50%. Transportation is the biggest contributor to our GHG emissions. It is also one that is the most redundant going forward in our society connected by the internet.

2020-21 Covid-19 experience might be both a hint to a probable solution and a peek into where we are headed. Whilst the never ending lockdown future is dystopian, it might not be forced, but actually naturally transitioned into. Lockdowns have showed us that working, studying and socializing from home is viable even with such rudimentary technologies like Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Twitch.

Improvements in VR and development of the metaverse, might evolve virtual life from a crude substitute to a strong alternative or even main attraction. Most importantly, the creation of metaverse would solve the consumption part of the equation beyond transportation. Fashion industry is estimated to contribute 5-7% of total CO2 emissions – that could just become purely virtual. There could be further reduction in demand for iron, steel and cement (another -10%) if physical housing became less of an asset that it is today, especially in China, where ghost towns are being built purely for economic growth and investment purposes but not for living. Obviously, all of the mentioned CO2 reductions wouldn’t happen overnight nor reach an absolute zero. Certain amount of housing would still be needed, so would clothing, seldom haircut and so on.

Another interesting pro to this approach is countries like China and India would be forced to join this growing new economy or risk being left behind. Again, no need to ask for pointless pledges and promises – the West stops consuming cheap physical goods and transitions into cheap virtual goods consumption, producer economies will be forced to adjust or enter recession.

The only question is how far the VR tech can get us and how fast to keep us happy at home?