The Carbon — and Social — Footprint of metaverses, blockchain, XR and Web 3.0
There are now many studies and a lot of data on the carbon footprint of our phones. A recent paper from a researcher at the German multinational Siemens explained in 2022 that the manufacturing of our smartphones accounts for 77% of the carbon footprint of our individual device, while 22% is the environmental damage from daily posting and the use of the internet. Only 1% is the actual electricity required.
Meanwhile, McMaster University was one of the first universities to publish research that damned the manufacture and daily use of smartphones. It quantified exactly how much damage is caused by posting images on social media, texting, sending Instant Messages and emailing constantly — and that was only in 2018 before the pandemic.
Figure 2.2 Peitzker Diagram of the Climate Damage of Smartphones, the Web (metaverses on the blockchain with crypto/NFTs and XR)
© Tania Peitzker, author of The Climate Emergency & Societal Issues: Green Tech Solutions to Make Metaverse & XR Building More Sustainable (Peitzker Family Trust: Palm Cove Australia, Kindle Edition, 2022).
The brother of the so-called founder of the World Wide Web, Mike Berners-Lee, is a Professor at the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University, as well as the Director of Small World Consulting at the Lancaster Environment Centre. While his sibling Tim — known as TBL among the “internet history” geeks — has been calling for a less hateful and more community-minded internet, as was his original intention, Mike began a crusade about the carbon footprint not just of our personal computers and web habits, but the environmental cost of “everything”. MBL first published his findings in 2010 and the media embraced the shock of his data. “How Bad are Bananas: the Carbon Footprint of Everything” mapped out our planet destroying habits and ways of living, producing and consuming, quantifying the carbon footprint of an avocado to an email.
Tragically, his targets kept growing in number and carbon impact in size. Further editions were printed in the past decades, with the latest imprint “The Carbon Footprint of Everything” appearing in Canada in 2022. I contacted Mike for this book to see if he had tracked the damage caused by Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and holograms. His assistant replied immediately with a recent paper published in cell.com (MBL et al. 2021). They look at blockchain’s carbon footprint though not specifically the Mixed Reality elements I asked about. His co-authored paper on the carbon footprint of “ICT” explains that most of his peers were reluctant to evaluate the carbon impact of blockchain because it requires special hardware so they thought the impact might be “self-contained” to the devices. Presumably this is why very few people to date have looked at the environmental impact of VR, AR and holograms, not to mention the proto-metaverses and the amount of computing power required to create cognitive interfaces and Extended Reality installations.
There is, however, loads of data on the environmental damage caused by the mining of cryptocurrencies. The diagram (Figure 2.2) shows how the power used by the data centres for crypto have a massively damaging impact. Especially as they use special hardware in server “farms” that operate 24/7 and give off a lot of heat, though some eco minded Bitcoin miners in Norway have tried to make that a renewable source of energy for the neighbouring village.
China actually kicked out most of these data centres 1) for not liking the subversiveness of uncontrollable crypto finance and 2) because it is just so bad for the climate when the Chinese Government is trying to minimise climate change in their country. Most of these crypto mining operations moved to the USA and Russia/Siberia. Some to Northern Europe, even to Tasmania which can get bitterly cold — the new Australian operation is moving in to an abandoned coal mine underground! The crypto world has promised to do something about this and their members have signed an accord to switch to renewable energy sources within a few decades. This is not enough to compensate for the massive damage caused in the meantime.