What is the current situation? (Not sustainable)
In order to look at the sustainable future, we first need to look at the unsustainable past. The previous century was driven by fossil fuels, which are unsustainable as they are a limited resource. Crude oils, coal and natural gasses were burned for their energy and this enabled technology to grow and industries to flourish. Sadly though, this ‘black gold’ has very bad combustion byproducts. The most well-known of these is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas causing average global temperature to rise. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is now growing exponentially on a year by year basis. Methane, another greenhouse gas, is also emitted at record rates due to increased demand for livestock farming. There are also other pollutants like particulate matter. This includes sulfurous oxides, nitrogenous oxide (NOx) and hydrocarbons. These pollutants cause serious health issues, especially in young children and the elderly, acid rains and smog. There is a global shift towards sustainable energy currently underway, though even breakthroughs in sustainable technology would reach all causes of emissions.
Problems with climate change
Climate change is perhaps the single greatest challenge of our generation. Due to emissions of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gasses, more and more heat is trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. This trapped heat results in the Earth having more energy, which in this case is not desirable. It means that storms will be more violent, ice will melt at a faster rate and deserts will grow bigger. These abnormal and extreme weather patterns will cause huge flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes and unsafe levels of heat. Scientific models show that without proper prevention, the global average temperature will rise beyond the agreed upon 2° critical level. Current predictions are that many populated areas will permanently flood, including Bangladesh, holiday destinations like the Maldives and even the entire city of Miami.
Clearly, the devastation would be on a scale yet unseen. Most of this would be caused by CO2 directly, but some would be from other gasses. The second largest contributor, methane, has a carbon dioxide equivalent of 25, meaning a kilogram of methane has 25 times the effect of a kilogram of CO2. The diagram below shows what greenhouse gasses are emitted in CO2 equivalent (CO2e).
Of the fossil fuel human-caused emissions, about 16% is from road transportation, about 44% is from energy generation and heating, about 18% is from manufacturing and construction, about 6% is from non-road transportation, about 12% is from fuel combustion and other uses and about 4% is from other sources. Also, as we can see, 11.1% of CO2e is from agriculture, 12.7% is from land clearing and 8.9% is from other gasses. With the exception of some farming, very few of these causes are remotely sustainable, which is what makes it so much worse.
The role of digital beings
The needs of a digital being are obviously far different from a biological human. Consequently, emissions by humans would be different for digital beings, and so much more sustainable. Let’s dissect each cause one by one.
Agriculture: One obvious avoidable cause is agriculture. Given that those with digital immortality would not use food or drink to get energy, agriculture would be so far reduced. There are some agricultural products that aren’t for eating, such as wool, leather and feathers. Assuming the worst, these would still cause some agricultural emissions, but at a far less significant level. What’s more likely is that faux materials would be the only ones used and animal products for wearing or decoration would be banned either partially or wholly.
- Other gases: F-gases First of all, let’s look at(fluorine gases). The include CFCs, HFCs and HCFCs. Though they have many uses and an ongoing global phase-out, they would still be reduced for digital beings. Certain objects like food refrigerators, medicinal refrigerators, aerosols (including deodorants, air fresheners and some cleaning sprays), air conditioners, certain cosmetic and non-cosmetic solvents and pharmaceuticals would no longer be needed, meaning a huge reduction in F-gas output. Waste gases and Cement gases are unlikely to change due to digital existence.
Land clearing for food: As we have seen, land clearing accounts for 12.7% of emissions. According to the data, about 8% is due to clearing for crops or feed – the well-known ‘slash and burn’ technique is a large contributor to this. However, as we know, digital beings do not need food so this would practically be eliminated.
Land clearing for settlements: One cause that you would expect to be about even is settlements. Despite the expectations, settlements would more than likely be a little bit less for digital beings. Usually, settlements require bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens, with many having other rooms and maybe a garden. Digital beings do not need bathrooms or kitchens (or beds really) so the area required for a settlement would marginally be less than that of a biological human.
Timber and Biofuel: These causes are less likely to change for digital beings. Though timber for construction will probably reduce and timber for paper and other stationery will also reduce due to better internal software, biofuel is about as likely to be used for digital and biological beings. One aspect of biofuel, namely burning waste food will definitely be eliminated, however, this represents a very small portion of biofuels.
Transportation: Though the method of transportation is unlikely to reduce due to digital immortality, the demand will likely reduce. Some services will no longer be needed, including food delivery/ transportation, biological-based goods delivery/transport (e.g. organ or blood transport), cosmetic or pharmaceutical goods transport and transportation of other human purposed goods like toilet paper, tissues, cutlery and crockery, pregnancy kits and contraception and many many more. Passenger transportation is unlikely to be affected, yet this still represents huge cuts in emissions.
- Fuel combustion and other burning: Aside from heating, the biggest domestic fuel usage is for cooking. Obviously, given that those with digital immortality and an artificial body do not need to eat and thus do not need to cook. This means fuels for cooking and the occasional piece of food will not be burnt and neither CO2 nor particulates will be emitted. Other types of burning such as candles, wood fires and other decorative things to burn are marginally less likely to be burned due in part to augmented reality. This is also true of recreational fires, resulting in lower emissions.
- Energy generation and heating: Accounting for around 30% of global emissions, energy generation and heating is a big sector that needs to be cut. Thankfully, digital beings would not require external heating, so that would result in major cuts. Also, people in artificial bodies would use fewer external electrical components, including kettles, electric showers and other electric food preparation systems such as coffee machines, electric hobs and ovens, toasters, microwaves, refrigerators and others. Other things like TVs, music systems, electronic portable devices and even decorative lights could also be disregarded, with decorative lights being easy to augment into reality and portable devices being unnecessary due to software and virtual reality experiences. This would also cause a huge reduction in power consumption, though it may be offset by the artificial body and digital brain itself needing charging. Despite this, the overall energy consumption should be less than someone with electrical-only appliances.
Byproducts of manufacturing and construction
- Manufacturing: This is a bit harder to tell. On one hand, goods only used by biological humans would be useless to those with artificial bodies, meaning that the production of those goods would stop. The packaging manufacturing would also stop, potentially resulting in far less manufacturing emissions, recycling emissions and physical waste. On the other hand, there would likely be a lot of resources required to build and satisfy parts demand for digital beings, which would increase manufacturing emissions and life cycle emissions for that person. Overall, due to the sheer amount of manufacturing for single-use plastics and other cheap goods that are barely used, manufacturing emissions would be reduced for digital beings.
- Construction: As we have mentioned, digital beings do not need to occupy as much physical space, therefore construction would be very much reduced. This isn’t just a reduction in building size, but even in entire buildings. Not only would things like plumbing, kitchens, bathrooms and handicap access not be required, but even the buildings that are entirely for biological humans could be done away with. Buildings like water treatment, sewage treatment, slaughterhouses, farms, hospitals and any other public service buildings would no longer need to be constructed and could be repurposed as other buildings. On top of this, many businesses would also no longer be needed, including supermarkets, fitness centres, restaurants, fast-food restaurants, salons and beauty parlours, pharmacies, GP surgeries and more would not be needed, as well as the factories, sales outlet and waste management site of every unneeded good or product.
Are digital beings more sustainable?
To summarise, from the perspective of emissions, digital beings certainly seem much more sustainable. By the time the technology is possible, it is very likely that companies like Tesla, with their auto and energy divisions, will have done their part to reduce the energy-based emissions responsible for almost half of all CO2e emissions. This trend is very likely to continue with other aspects of life, provided government play their part. This will reduce emissions in the sectors that digital existences would have little impact upon.
As for the rest of it, digital immortality will play a huge role. The lack of a need for food and the ridiculous amount of resources that we as biological humans need will have a gigantic effect. Not only can those with artificial bodies be sustainable with their own lives, but they could cause many other aspects of society to also become more sustainable, improving the security of our societies and preventing the destruction of many civilisations. Indeed, as we mentioned in our space exploration post, with a solar array and batteries, digital beings could be self-sustainable practically anywhere indefinitely.