Hello and welcome back to Green About Media, the podcast where corporate sustainability expert Ara Almada and myself, Phil McDowell, look into the concepts surrounding sustainability and specifically how it relates to the digital corporate world.
We have already gone over what it means to be sustainable and the differences between Corporate Social Responsibility and the newer concept of Environmental, Sustainable & Governance, as well as the different scopes, through which we can better measure our impact on the environment both in our personal and professional lives. And if you missed those first 2 episodes I highly recommend that you jump back so that you’re up to speed for this one.
Because today we are talking all about the digital carbon footprint. Does it even have one? And is digital, by its very nature, just more sustainable?
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Written, Produced & Engineered by Phil McDowell
Executive Producer: Nadia Koski
Project Leads: Denis Kirschner & Stefanie Leonardi
By now most of us are aware of the concept of a carbon footprint, the size of the carbon mark that we leave on the environment both as an organization or a country and as an individual but the term digital carbon footprint is a concept that’s only now becoming more widely recognized.
So let’s define what we mean by Digital Carbon Footprint: A digital carbon footprint refers to the emissions created through our digital lives. Our devices, the internet, and the systems that support them.
As we discussed in the last episode of this podcast, Human activity is responsible for our current climate crisis, and believe it or not, the use of digital devices and services is actually a major contributor, despite this "clean" illusion of digital that most people, including me before starting on this project, assume.
Digital is not in fact carbon-free. It's far from it.
I think the clean illusion comes from the fact that CO2 and most of the other greenhouse gases are invisible and often odorless, so it’s harder to see and manage the impacts.
On the other hand with waste, the opposite is true, when we see piles of plastic, cardboard, and simply trash piling up, it’s clear to us that we have a problem and we need to do something.
Because there is no smoke coming out of our keyboards, or chimneys attached to major data centers, I think we don’t realize nor take it as seriously as we should.
There's no doubt that the internet has revolutionized the way that we work, making access to information as easy as pushing a button.
But most of us rarely think about the energy needed to maintain a global network of telecommunications. Nor do we spare much thought for the vast data centers around the world that manage the massive traffic that we produce 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
A quarter of global carbon emissions comes from generating electricity, as you might guess, the internet produces a great deal of it.
Exactly how much is still open for debate – there are some stats that the internet is responsible for 10% of the world's energy usage, much of which is sourced from fossil fuels, and websites are a significant contributor to this consumption.
Also, keep in mind that digital technologies exist beyond the definition of the internet – for example, your printer, your portable hard drives, USB cables, and all of this equipment.
Undoubtedly the environmental impact of digital is a current challenge, also because it goes beyond carbon emissions: the depletion of non-renewable resources (critical metals), fresh water consumption (through mining processes), and pollution (water, land...). These impacts are significant and are mainly due to the manufacturing phase of the equipment used to power our digital services and products (terminals, servers, computers, smartphones, and cables...).
In fact, the vast majority (approximately 80%) of digital’s carbon footprint can be attributed to the manufacturing and distribution of the equipment itself.
That means our digital services, products and accessories have a carbon history long before we touch them.
For example, when you buy a new smartphone that requires a USB cable for charging, that cable’s CO2e emissions (as well as the charger and packaging) are part of the product’s overall embodied footprint.
The remaining 20% comes from the energy required to use the product or service during its lifetime.
While this 20% may seem like a worthless distraction in the face of the hefty 80%, as our usage of digital technology continues to accelerate over time, a continuous growth of unconscious wasted energy consumption could swing the balance.
Digital Transformation is often seen as key to slowing global warming.
The amount of data we use is increasing, and all this computing power to process and create this data, needs to be run by something - and as I mentioned earlier - up to now this has predominantly been energy from fossil fuels.
Data Centers worldwide today consume around 1% of global electricity. A great deal of this energy is turned into heat. This heat needs to be removed through cooling which is another major consumer of energy.
Some researchers expect these digital tech emissions to increase further, as the global economy continues to digitize and advanced AI and machine learning demand more computational power.
Computing power demands are now doubling approximately every two months, compared with every 24 months prior to 2012, according to researchers.
So how much does digital contribute globally to carbon emissions?
Most people are shocked to find that the internet contributes to more global carbon emissions - around 4% - than the often maligned aviation industry which is 3%. Think about the sheer scale of internet activity, from our phones, tablets, smart TVs, and Internet of things at home plus the computers in the office to the power used by data centers and transmission networks, the output is enormous – and we’re all players in it.
Internet traffic has tripled in the last few years.
Streaming video and audio are the biggest drivers of the explosive growth making up almost ⅔ of global internet traffic.
Live gaming is also growing at a rate of 20% per year. Netflix and YouTube combined represent more than 50% of Internet traffic at peak times in North America.
The average website is responsible for 2 to 2.5 grams of CO2e, and heavy websites even 7-8 grams of CO2e every time someone visits a web page.
With roughly 50,000 monthly page views, the average website produces over 1 ton of CO2e per year.
The scientific advisory board at the Eco-Friendly Web Alliance (EFWA) has worked out that in order for a website to be considered green, it can emit no more than one gram of CO2 per page view. Some websites receive a lot more traffic than that, say with under half a million monthly page views you’re looking at the average website producing an estimated 10 tons of CO2e per year.
As the world, especially the big developing countries in Africa and Asia, increase their access to the internet, this number is only going to increase, with some projecting it will double within a few years.
Another big contributor to digital’s carbon footprint is the one related to disposal of all those electronic devices need for digital to work. This is called eWaste.
We should remember that these devices contain toxic metals and that if they are thrown into the environment they have a real impact and pose serious environmental risks to our soil, water, air, and wildlife.
Around 50 million tons of e-waste are being thrown away each year, according to a report published by the United Nations.
That’s like throwing away 800 laptops a second!
And that figure is projected to double by 2050 if we don’t do something about it.
And yet the irony is that virtually all electronic waste contains some form of recyclable material.
That includes materials like plastic, glass, and metals, which is why they may be considered “junk” or “obsolete” to us but still serve an essential purpose.
It’s also ironic, in some ways, that these devices are called “e-waste,” since they’re not waste at all. But in far too many instances, they are thrown away.
Worldwide more than 80% of electronic waste is not recycled via proper channels.
But what about The Cloud? This light and fluffily named thing makes it feel like all our data is magically being stored over our heads, far from the polluting factories and practically part of nature itself. Right?
You could say that today the modern factory is the cloud. And of course, the cloud is not a cloud, it’s a series of massive concrete buildings connected by wires around the world, sometimes plugged directly into old power stations.
However, as people become more aware of these issues and are starting to take them more seriously, organizations are starting to respond and make significant steps toward solving or at least lessening the impact of these problems.
The biggest cloud companies have long-term plans to run their data centers entirely on renewable energy. For example, Google, which aims to reach that goal by 2030, has been working with wind and solar companies early to deploy renewable energy at its data-center sites as well as signing on to power purchase agreements that help fund clean-energy projects.
A number of major brands have taken big steps to green their cloud and are committed to 100% renewable energy, such as Apple which claims to use 100% renewable energy and has committed to being 100% carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030.
Microsoft has committed to becoming carbon negative by 2030. It will reduce its carbon emissions by more than half by 2030 and remove the rest. They also pledged to offset all historical emissions by 2050.
Facebook has committed to reaching net zero emissions across its value chain in 2030 and also claims it is already using 100% renewable energy since 2020.
Anything we can do to reduce carbon emissions is important, no matter how small, and that includes how we behave on the internet. Here are a few examples:
We can alter the way we use our gadgets to cut our digital carbon footprints. One of the easiest ways is to switch the way we send messages. By simply stopping unnecessary things such as “thank you” emails we could collectively save a lot of carbon emissions.
If every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email, it could save 16 thousand tons of carbon a year – the equivalent of 3 thousand diesel cars being taken off the road.
Internet searching is another tricky area. According to Google’s own figures, an average user of its services ie. someone who performs 25 searches each day, watches 60 minutes of YouTube, has a Gmail account, and accesses some of its other services, produces just under 8g (0.28oz) CO2e a day.
Now, this is an interesting pro digital wrinkle but regardless of the search engine we use, using the web to find information is more sustainable than browsing books. In fact, a paperback’s carbon footprint is around 1kg CO2e, while a weekend newspaper accounts for between 0.3kg and 4.1kg CO2e, making reading the news online more environmentally friendly than poring over a paper.
And Ara has some other suggestions to help you reduce your own digital footprint:
Hold on to your devices for as long as possible. Get them repaired before you buy a new one and once it is no longer working, don’t forget to recycle it properly.
Go directly to the website rather than using a search engine. Save websites you regularly visit in your favorites bookmark.
Kill the vampire power! When plugged in but powered down, computers continue to draw energy, this is known as vampire power.
And one of my favorites is to clean up your inbox! Erase all unwanted and unnecessary emails you have piling up without forgetting to unsubscribe from irrelevant newsletters.
So many companies and individuals assume that if you move as much online as possible, you’re minimizing your emissions. It’s true in some ways, but it does not mean digital does not have an impact. And it is, as always, in so many aspects of life, and kind of the point of this podcast, really so important to be better informed. Because then we can all make these little decisions, most of which don’t really negatively impact our day-to-day lives, that all add up to make a real difference.
We can’t sit back and wait for the internet to become net zero. It’s today's emissions that cause tomorrow’s climate change.
So let’s all take full responsibility for our digital carbon footprint today.
What are you and your company doing to reduce your digital footprint?
Thank you all for joining us today for Green About Media and I hope you were able to take something other than the standard sustainability doom and gloom from this episode.
This episode was produced and engineered by me Phil McDowell and Written by the ever-studious and hard-working Ara Almada, seriously it is just such a pleasure working on this with you, Ara, even remotely.
Thank you as ever to executive producer Nadia Koski who as ever is such a calming and organized force on these projects.
Green About Media and our other shows will be back soon with new content and a few surprises!