How the metaverse can bring us closer to a sustainable reality

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

But this will not be without consequences for our physical environment. There is no doubt that the trading models currently being set up 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 real-world climate crisis can be found in a virtual one.

The metaverse holds the promise of a substantial reduction in carbon emissions, whether it be replacing physical goods with digital ones, replacing real world presence with virtual interactions, or digital twins that will help us make the physical world – from the planet to individual people. The immersive nature of metaverse experiences can also help overcome our behavioral barriers to climate action.

Moreover, we must not lose sight of the need for social sustainability, making the metaverse accessible, inclusive and equitable.

As business leaders invest, develop and transform new customer strategies to pursue the potential of the metaverse, better climate and social outcomes must be at the center of planning efforts. We need to take a broader view to ensure that we bridge the cost-benefit gap of using the metaverse.

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

Replacing atoms with voxels

The immersive nature of the metaverse provides alternatives to resource-intensive physical goods that can drive consumer demand, resulting in sustainability benefits.

Customers may be able to shift their budget for certain products to sustainable virtual options that require fewer resources to create and contribute less waste. This could be a remarkable development for waste-intensive industries, such as fast fashion, which contribute to overproduction and overconsumption.

One of the most promising benefits of the metaverse can be found in business travel. Before 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 held in the metaverse, creating some of the same benefits of face-to-face meetings while reducing air travel emissions for discretionary travel.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the sustainability metaverse is the ability to use the technology to better identify and execute carbon reduction plans. Digital twins can give us opportunities to optimize the physical world by viewing it through the lens of a virtual world. A recent study has shown that a digital twin can reduce a building’s CO2 emissions by 50%. Using digital twin technology, it is possible to integrate a wide range of data sources to make predictions about factors such as air pollution and carbon emissions and then identify actions to address these challenges.

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Overcome psychological barriers to climate action

Interestingly, behavior is one of the biggest barriers to tackling climate change. A 2019 study of 2 billion social media posts found that we are rapidly normalizing climate conditions — making them easier to ignore: a problem in the distance for another day. We just have short-term memory and it’s hard for us to understand the long-term consequences of our inaction on climate change. But this mindset is detrimental to our future.

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

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

Right now, we shouldn’t just focus on building environmental sustainability into the metaverse. There is an opportunity to design the metaverse from scratch for social inclusion and equality among many stakeholders. It requires intent and broad and diverse collaborations between companies, regulators, investors, academia and civil society.

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 fair access to the metaverse.

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Education, for example, is an area where these elements of technology and stakeholder collaboration can come together to create inclusion and equity, and even close income gaps. Imagine the possibilities of a metaverse university that empowers young people with immersive experiences and virtual collaboration, regardless of income or location.

There are multiple possible futures for the metaverse, and we have both the agency and the solutions to create a future designed for environmental sustainability in the physical world and human thriving in the virtual. Now is the time for companies to lead the way at this critical juncture, leveraging the innovation of the metaverse while pooling strength and investment.

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

Nicola Morini Bianzino is CTO of EY Global.

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