The billionaires are once again claiming that tech will save us. In an interview published Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that by the end of this decade, he expects we’ll all have access to virtual reality goggles that will allow us to feel like we’re teleporting into other people’s houses and hanging out. That could, in turn, help cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from travel.
“Obviously, there are going to keep on being cars and planes and all that. But the more that we can teleport around, not only are we personally eliminating commutes and stuff that’s kind of a drag for us individually, but I think that’s better for society and for the planet overall, too,” Zuckerberg told the Information.
Globally, the transit sector is one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis, and in the U.S., pollution from the transit sector make up the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no question that that needs to change.
But will virtual reality goggles help us cut down on carbon emissions? Maybe. Studies on the greenhouse gas output of VR technology are limited, but it’s true that the carbon emissions associated with an individual call on Zuckerberg’s prospective smart glasses might be lower than those associated with a plane trip across the country, for instance. Right now, though, we don’t have enough information to know for sure.
“Videoconferencing already [reduces travel-related carbon emissions] to a limited degree, but I don’t think anyone can say in advance whether VR will be cool enough to get people to forego leisure travel. If it substitutes for business travel and meetings it will be a net positive,” Jonathan Koomey, an energy and climate researcher who runs a sustainable IT consultancy, wrote in an email, though he added that “there are so many unknowns about this that it’s hard to say anything definitive.”
VR also isn’t a substitute for in-person jobs which require face-to-face interactions and work, from construction to food service. The millions of people employed in those industry will still continue to commute. In order to make much of a dent in business travel, VR technology would likely have to be used quite widely in other sectors, then. And as for traveling for fun, Koomey doesn’t think it has much of a shot.
“I doubt people will choose to use VR instead of going on a tropical holiday,” he said.
Of course, not everyone in the world is going on tropical holidays. In fact, one recent study found that just 11% of people globally traveled by plane at all, and no more than 4% of the world’s population took international flights. But the global elite, the study found, are flying with no abandon. Just 1% of the global population was responsible for half of the world’s commercial flight emissions that year.
If flying on planes is bad, taking private jets is far worse. A single PJ flight across the country can produce nearly double the entire annual greenhouse gas output for an average American. Yet Facebook covered nearly $3 million in private jet costs for Zuckerberg in 2019, according to federal disclosures. In addition to flying for business, Zuckerberg also has a $100 million mansion in Hawaii. It’s hard to imagine him forgoing trips there to stay at home on the VR headset instead.
In some sense, though, that’s not entirely Zuckerberg’s fault. We can’t expect people with his level of extreme wealth to simply act in good faith and make personal decisions that are better for our collective future on Earth! In other words, we can’t simply depend on people choosing to buy new, fancy technologies to fix the climate crisis. The world’s leading climate scientists say we need high levels of government regulation to clamp down on pollution from aviation, cruises, cars, and other polluting sectors.
Zuckerberg, though, has remained staunchly anti-regulation. But then, of course, he has to—his job is to make Facebook money. Making VR goggles the next big thing could be great for Zuckerberg’s quest to enrich Facebook and himself given the company’s stake in the technology. And branding the glasses as green could help him in doing so.
In every other sense, though, there’s little evidence that VR goggles will really do that much. So if Mark Zuckerberg really cares about lowering planet-warming emissions, maybe he could start with a more robust solution to combat climate denial, axing avenues for deniers to advertise lies, and generally not funding them or their events in the first place.