This is part 2 in our series about the role of digital beings in a sustainable future. Click here to read part 1.
Problems with air pollution
Very much like climate change, air pollution’s effects are gradual and not obvious, but it affects practically everyone even in a fully sustainable future. Air pollution is generally known in the form of particulate matter, invisibly small particles that can pass through most barriers in the body. The most well-known air pollutants are nitrogenous oxides (NOx), sulfurous oxides and volatile organic compounds. These pollutants cause serious health issues, especially in young children and the elderly, acid rains and smog. Some notable health issues include cancer, decreased oxygen capacity, accelerated biological ageing and decreased IQ.
Air pollution has many causes, the most famous of which being from transport and energy generation. There are, however, many other causes that are less well-known and/or less thought about. Such things as wood burning and barbecues are not commonly associated with pollution, despite being very dirty per kilogram. Multiple studies now show that wood burning is, in fact, the highest contributor to air pollution.
Although the causes of air pollution differ by area, we do have comprehensive studies from some regions, such as the UK and Bay Area (above data). From the graph, we see that wood smoke is the leading contributor at about a third of the pollution. On-road vehicles come second at over a fifth, followed by off-road machinery at almost exactly a fifth. Interestingly, refining, the dirty and energy-intensive process of purifying crude oils, came in at 7%, roughly equal to cooking emissions. Aircraft contributed 3%, power plants another 3%, marine causes were 1% and other causes amounted to 3%.
The role of digital beings
Clearly, these causes will not be the same for digital beings, so will once again take an in-depth look at all the causes.
- Wood burning: Presumably, most wood burning is done for heating, decoration or destruction as with bonfires. For digital beings, external heating is far less of an issue, as explained in our customisation post. Also, with the help of augmented reality, all decorations could be added with software instead of needing to be purchased. These both contribute to lower personal wood burning and thus lower air pollution. Furthermore, due to the decreased need for goods, there would be less packaging waste burned, further decreasing pollution emissions.
- Cooking: One obvious aspect of biological life not applicable to digital beings is cooking. Due to the lack of a need for food, it follows that digital beings won’t do any cooking. This entire sector of pollution will no longer apply to people with artificial bodies, improving home air quality and lessening the global impact.
- Other domestic: Other domestic sources of pollution are generally limited to gas-powered garden machinery and candles, but can include methane fires, fireworks and combustion-based drugs like tobacco. With the exception of garden machinery, all of these sources can be replicated with software to reduce emissions. Also, things like tobacco will have no effect on a digital being.
- Transport: As discussed in detail in Part 1, the method of transport is less likely to change due to a digital life, but demand will reduce. Already, this will reduce emissions, especially of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), aeroplanes and shipping boats. This could have a very large benefit as international shipping regulations are very loose on pollution emissions. Ships, which use the most polluting type of fuel, bunker fuel, are the worst polluters on a global scale so reducing their demand would mean very large improvements.
- Energy generation and refining: Again, as discussed in part 1, the source of energy is unlikely to be affected, though demand will. Reductions in demand come from a lack of need for refrigerators, mobile device chargers, computers, TVs, electric cookers, and other electrical appliances. This will be due to no need for food, as well as internal software and hardware being better than external devices. Increase in demand comes from the need to charge an artificial body up.
- Machinery: Machinery is yet another thing unlikely to change due to digital immortality, though once again demand will reduce. Due to the lack of a need of kitchens, bathrooms, toilets, handicap access and other entire buildings built for biological needs, there would be less construction and therefore reduced machinery emissions.
- Other non-domestic: Other non-domestic sources of air pollution are more varied. Ignoring natural causes, many anthropogenic (human-caused) sources would be unlikely to change. Some, such as volatile organic compound vapours are tied to the technology of the time, as well as demand. Most sources will decrease due to reduced demand, though many will likely remain on the same trend.
Are digital beings less polluting?
In terms of air pollution, digital beings certainly seem better aligned with a sustainable future. Due to no food, reduced goods demand, internal climate management and augmented reality taking the place of decorative fires, there is less of a use case for fires in general. This efficiency of digital beings means that a sustainable future is much more achievable and biological health is likely to stop worsening so much.
As for the sources of pollution not changed by having an artificial body, clean technology will likely replace the dirty technology of the past and present. Things like cheaper battery price per kilowatt-hour and cheaper solar panel cost per kilowatt will drive out combustion-based energy in favour of a sustainable future. The same technologies that would make the battery and electrical components in digital beings cheaper would take fossil fuels and wood burners out of the picture.