Generative AI has seen an explosion in interest and popularity since the public launch of ChatGPT in November 2022. Interest and awareness in the tech of the future hasn’t been this intense in decades, with some likening it to the lighting fast transition from “mystery to ubiquity” last seen in regards to the internet in the mid-’90s.
What makes this time different is that sustainability and climate action have entered the mainstream. The “twin transition” in Europe and beyond marries the two ideas, with research showing that digital solutions can reduce emissions by 20% by 2050, especially in energy, materials and mobility sectors. From AI and the metaverse to cryptocurrency and tech hardware supply chains, sustainability plays a central role in how each of these technologies will develop in the coming years and decades.
Generative AI and the metaverse—a road to sustainable consumption?
Generative AI is having a superstar moment, while there is talk that we are currently in a “metaverse winter.” Reality is, as always, more nuanced. AI already is deeply interlinked with the metaverse, and will grow to be even more crucial to the technology’s development. Instead of being limited to manually developing worlds as we see in platforms like Roblox and Decentraland today, generative AI can make it possible for users to create dynamic and hyper-personalized environments through prompts, similar to what we already see with tools like DALL-E.
An interesting relationship between AI, the metaverse and consumption emerges here. It’s not by chance that a recent survey of nearly 5,700 people across the United States and Europe shows consumers who are more likely to purchase sustainable products are also more than twice as likely to shop in the metaverse. This is especially true for the 16-24 demographic. Consumption in the last few years has reached new heights and growing affluence is associated with increased resource use and emissions. Still, there are clear signs that virtual fashion, décor and other forms of material consumption could, perhaps, provide a bright spot in reducing material consumption and physical travel.
Cryptocurrency and energy consumption
Public debate tends to highlight the negative environmental impact of blockchain, particularly when it comes to energy consumption of currency mining like Bitcoin (though there are nuances and disagreement in terms of energy sources). Recently, however, new approaches have emerged that can make the mining process more sustainable. One of those has a dual benefit: burning waste from landfills or using old frying oil to produce a sort of bio-fuel, off of which Bitcoin-mining machines can run.
Ethereum, on the other hand, has undertaken something more systemic with its “Merge.” By switching to a “proof of stake” approach, using random selection instead of energy-hungry puzzle-solving, Ethereum aims to cut its carbon emissions by 99%.
These developments in efficient processing can make blockchain a more promising technology for climate impact. The carbon credit market, for example, is currently burdened by a lack of regulation, corruption and low quality data. Blockchain has the potential to make an impact on transparency and traceability, through reliable authentication and long-term tracking available to a variety of stakeholders.
Embedding sustainability into the supply chain
Supply chains sit at the core of any tech hardware product lifecycle. Multinational corporations are increasingly making commitments to fair and sustainable practices as part of their supply chain. But, no company or product is an island. Instead, when we talk about any given product, we are talking about complex webs and layers of suppliers, and an elaborate product lifecycle, from sourcing of raw materials and creating packaging to product longevity and, ultimately, disposal. Despite most organizations having long-term sustainable supply chain strategies, visibility and measurement remain a challenge.
Tech hardware of all kinds has a considerable supply chain, including the use of rare earth metals, whose mining and processing are associated with human rights and environmental concerns, as well as multiple types of single-use packaging. Moreover, responsibly partnering with local producers and manufacturers as part of the product lifecycle is crucial. This effort could look like anything from creating standards for suppliers to adhere to and report on—especially with in-market supplier input which would localize the policies and make them more realistic—to conducting in-market localized trainings to ensure the safety and sustainability of their work. Here, too, digital twin technology can make greater oversight and accurate, constantly updating emissions calculations possible.
Tech has an inherent duality. However, we know both tech itself and our future must be more sustainable. Some of the industry’s most recent developments and research are shaping up as promising signs that sustainability, innovation and growth go hand-in-hand. Some regulation, like the EU’s Green Industrial Plan, will continue to cement the relationship between digitalization and sustainability. Ultimately, the twin transition isn’t just a talking point—it’s becoming all the more real with new innovation and unprecedented corporate investment in sustainability alongside AI, crypto, VR and more.