Child using a VR headset against the Tuvalu flag

Tuvalu turns to the metaverse to guarantee islands’ survival

Image credit: Canva

Tuvalu has announced plans to recreate itself in the metaverse, in an attempt to "preserve" itself before global sea level rises compromise its existence.

Tuvalu's foreign minister Simon Kofe has revealed the nation's plans to build a digital twin of the country and upload it to the metaverse, an interoperable online platform that relies on augmented and virtual reality (VR) to help users interact. 

The announcement - made at the Cop27 climate summit - aims to preserve Tuvalu's history and culture before the nation is submerged underwater. 

"As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation," said Tuvalu's foreign minister Simon Kofe in a speech given at the climate summit, delivered against the backdrop of a digital island.

"Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious assets of our people - and to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we'll move them to the cloud."

Tuvalu is an archipelago consisting of nine islands located between Australia and Hawaii, with a population of approximately 12,000 people. It is also the fourth-smallest country in the world by area.

The Pacific nation has been one of the loudest voices in the fight against climate change, which has significant implications for the country. Every year, the country suffers severe flooding caused by higher tides, with scientists predicting that the island will become uninhabitable within the next century. 

At last year's summit, Kofe grabbed global attention by addressing the conference standing knee-deep in the sea to illustrate how Tuvalu is affected by global temperature rises, despite its own environmental impact being minimal. 

"Since Cop26, the world has not acted and so we in the Pacific have had to act," said Kofe at Cop27. "We have seen temperature rise projections remain well above 1.5° Celsius, foretelling the imminent disappearance of islets like this one."

He said the metaverse plan, which accounts for the "worst-case scenario", is one that might allow Tuvalu to "fully function as a sovereign state" as its people are forced to live somewhere else.

"The tragedy of this outcome cannot be overstated. Tuvalu could be the first country in the world to exist solely in cyber space, but if global warming continues unchecked it won't be the last," he said.

If the world continues with current levels of emissions, there is a 50 per cent chance that global temperature rises will hit 1.5°C – the threshold imposed by the Paris Climate Agreement – in nine years, according to the Global Carbon project. 

In light of this risk, Dr Eselealofa Apinelu, Tuvalu’s former attorney general and current high commissioner to Fiji, told the ‘State of the Pacific’ conference that Tuvaluans needed “something they can hold on to”.

“When the unfortunate does happen and Tuvalu seems to really disappear, I think the idea then is to preserve it, conserve it in a state so that generations of Tuvaluans can look into it, that’s the digitised idea," she said. 

“We can’t digitise people. It’s easy to speak about the land. We need to involve human beings, that’s something we’re still considering – how to deal with people in that context.”

Over the past few years, the nation has been developing digital solutions that could mitigate the impact of climate change on its citizens. In 2021, the government took steps toward establishing a Tuvalu National Digital Ledger, which would secure its citizens' data on a public blockchain

Apinelu has also called on countries, including Australia, to allow Tuvaluans easier access in the meantime so they can explore other potential homes before the rising tides force them to migrate.

To date, it has been possible to create digital 3D reconstructions of natural habitats, as well as forums and virtual interactive spaces where different communities can interact.

Although less common, some countries have also experimented with virtual analogues of location-based functions. For example, Estonia's e-residency programme allows non-Estonians to obtain access to services such as company registration.

Many brands, including Coca-Cola, Nike and Disney, are also creating experiences in the metaverse, with reports suggesting that the total value of the metaverse is forecast to hit $36bn by 2025. However, the virtual space is still not well understood.

Having Tuvalu's 12,000 citizens interact in real-time in an immersive virtual world would bring significant technical challenges related to bandwidth, computing power, energy consumption, and the secondary effects of the use of VR headsets, such as nausea. 

Last month, the Lancet Countdown, an annual report tracking climate change and the impact it has on global human health, said that climate change is exacerbating food insecurity; health impacts from extreme heat; the risk of infectious disease outbreaks, and life-threatening extreme weather events.

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