WDYT 12/19: Moving to Virtual Reality – A Way out of the Climate Crisis?

Christian Heise
3 min readDec 24, 2019
Picture by Charles Edward Miller CC-BY-SA 2.0

We are in the midst of a climate crisis that is going to change our planet in our lifetime in ways that we can’t even begin to understand. In 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on the impact of limiting global warming to 1,5°C. This could mitigate the effect of global warming, perhaps avoiding some of the most disastrous consequences. However, they also reported that limiting global warming to 1,5°C, „would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.“

While there is an extensive list of the things that we can do to keep the planet from growing even warmer and a way smaller list we are agreeing to do, is it possible that we have failed to consider some less obvious ptions? A crisis of this magnitude might require more creative solutions.

What if the only way out of this climate crisis we have created is to redefine our understanding of reality? With advances in processing power and coding comes the idea of a virtual reality (VR) environment that is indistinguishable from what we currently know as reality. In the coming years, VR will be integrated with artificial intelligence (AI), enabling computers to view the world and begin to understand what they see. From this, that world can be reconstructed in a virtual environment faster and with more accuracy.

If the quality of VR reaches a point where either people can’t tell the difference or simply don’t care, what is to stop us from moving more parts of our daily activities into the virtual realm. Besides this being the story behind a lot of fiction, in fact, it is quite possible that, in many ways, virtual experiences may be preferable due to a lower level of risk, higher chances of success, lower cost, unlimited customization based on user preferences and maybe way less accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Consider all of the everyday, carbon-intensive activities that could be moved to VR. Going to work consumes massive quantities of energy, both in transportation and the lighting, heating, and cooling of office buildings. With virtual reality, remote workers could have the same experience as if they were in the office, seeing and interacting with other employees, managers, and even customers. Meanwhile, all of these different people could be virtually anywhere on the planet, saving the energy of traveling and providing office space.

Even our entertainment and cultural development could be virtualized. Vacation travel is hugely carbon-intensive. Whether flying or driving, vehicles burn fossil fuels. The ability to experience travel destinations across the world virtually would not only reduce the release of CO2, but it would also open these destinations to a. large portion of the population that could otherwise never afford the experience.

Obviously this still wouldn’t eliminate the use of fossil fuels and the release of carbon. The VR equipment, computers, and server farms would still need power. But possibly, with the reduction in overall use of energy and state-of-the-art. renewable energy sources coming online, it could just get us closer to where we need to be.

Maybe this idea won’t sound like a viable option for many. It does carry with it some visions of a dystopian future where all physical contact is replaced with the virtual. However, that is not the only possible outcome, and we desperately need creative solutions to the global warming crisis. Maybe instead of jumping to the worst possibilities of virtual reality, we, for a moment, find a glimmer in the hope that perhaps we will find a way out of this crisis. What do you think?