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Facing A Real Pollution Problem In Metaverse

While metaverse’s energy question can find its answer in clean sources, the latter is also dealing with its own waste demons

The metaverse universe is vast. To traverse it, its two cornerstones—augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)—have to be deployed. The two foot soldiers are technologically advanced, bringing many a science fiction novel to life and offering virtual experiences, like shopping, working, attending music concerts, socialising, among other things, to its users right at their couches. Environmentally, a different story is writing itself.

As VR technology and data centres rely on artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud services, the energy consumption is set to increase manifolds. To give you a glimpse, training a single artificial intelligence (AI) model could emit more than 6,26,000 pounds of carbon dioxide—which is equivalent to what five cars would emit in their entire lifetime, as found by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Cloud gaming, which is central for VR, consumes large amounts of energy, which, if drawn from the conventional fossil fuel-powered grid, generates harmful carbon emissions.

Metaverse, which is built on blockchain-based Web 3.0 suite, is also going to lead to increased activity on the internet. The International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency for information and communication technologies, estimated that approximately 4.9 billion people, or 63% of the world’s population, were using the internet in 2021. What is alarming is the environmental implication of that number which is only set to rise. Internet activities account for 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and these emissions are predicted to double by 2025, found a report by The Shift Project, a French think tank.

Environmentalists are already concerned about the surge in energy consumption. Bharati Chaturvedi, founder of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, says, “In its bid to provide different kinds of experiences to users, metaverse will consume a huge amount of energy, and because this energy is coming from a place which leads to carbon emissions, the carbon footprint might expand at some level.” She adds that metaverse will not be a substitute for high greenhouse gas-emitting activities, like air travel and long holidays, and the ones who can afford them will still do them.

In the evolution of metaverse, gaming has emerged as its mainstay today. The pursuit of cloud-based games casts a long shadow on sustainability. From devices, appliances and data centres, gaming is an energy-guzzling activity. According to the International Data Centre, there are eight million data centres globally and a 2015 report pegged their greenhouse gas emmissions at 2% of the world.

Mountain of E-Waste

In addition to the emissions, Chaturvedi points out the risk of solid electronic waste (e-waste) associated with an increase in engagement in metaverse. India generated 10,14,961 tonnes of e-waste in FY20, which was up 32% from the FY19 figure, stated a 2020 report by the Central Pollution Control Board. The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 noted that ​​in 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tonnes (MTs) of e-waste and only 17.4% of this was officially documented as properly collected and recycled. Since 2014, the global generation of e-waste has grown by 9.2 MT and is projected to touch 74.7 MT by 2030. Metaverse-related e-waste will only add to that figure.

Using video platform Zoom as an example, Chaturvedi talks about the number of accessories that users might need to engage in myriad virtual experiences of metaverse, which will subsequently lead to a burgeoning e-waste problem. “Zoom calls changed everything. First, we used large headphones, which were then given up to make way for cordless headphones, and then came earpods. These accessories are plastic intensive and have metals that have been mined. Being so compact and complex, they are extremely hard to recycle,” she says.

Shailly Kedia, associate director of the sustainable development and outreach division, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), echoes this thought. “E-waste generated due to an increase in demand of metaverse-related electronic products will need to be tackled well. E-waste is also hazardous waste and needs to be handled carefully,” she says, adding that extended producer responsibility will have to be backed by strong regulation and implementation along with consumer awareness.  

In terms of the energy-related environmental impact, Kedia says she is not too worried as metaverse-related technologies can be powered by clean energy sources. However, this, in itself, could be a problem going forward.

With an increased focus on clean energy and the 2070 net-zero target that India set for itself at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow last year, the sources producing that energy, solar being the primary source, are working at full throttle. Subsequently, they are also dealing with their own waste problem. Metaverse-related energy needs will only add to the already existing pressure.  

Problems in Solutions

Renewable energy and pollution might sound like oxymorons. But sample this: A recent CRISIL Ratings study has estimated that as compared to 2021, India’s solar module manufacturing capacity will jump almost 400% by fiscal 2025. About 30-35 GW of solar module capacity is likely to be added to the current 8 GW of effective solar module capacity and 3 GW of solar cell capacity with investments in the space set to soar to nearly Rs 50,000 crore by 2025. That paints a pretty picture, doesn’t it? But there is a catch. Currently, there are no operational commercial raw material recovery facilities for solar e-waste in the country except for a solar panel recycling pilot plant which was set up by a private player in Gummidipoondi in Chennai in 2020.

According to a report jointly prepared by the National Solar Energy Federation of India, SolarPower Europe, PV Cycle and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, India is likely to generate 34,600 tonnes of cumulative solar waste by 2030. In the absence of a robust PV waste management and recycling policy, India is staring at a humongous clean energy waste problem which poses a risk to health and environment.  

Delhi-based think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water elucidated the hazards in a 2021 study titled How India can Manage Solar Photovoltaic Module Waste Better. It pointed out that PV modules contain silicon, aluminium, copper, and silver with traces of lead, compounds of tin and cadmium, besides glass and polymer sheets. The report elaborates how these can be potentially harmful—while aluminium and silicon are relatively less toxic, heavy metals like lead and cadmium are an ecological hazard and a human carcinogen.  

Bottomline, apart from greenhouse gas emissions, Web 3.0 has environmental implications, even if its energy needs are drawn from renewable sources.