By Jess Oneal and Meera Shah
Sending emails, streaming videos and buying the newest phones all have environmental impacts. As the world strives to reduce its digital footprint, learn how you can reduce yours too.
Can we be doing more in the fight against climate change?
Climate change and technology appear to be at odds when considering what is at stake for the planet in the wake of progress. We continue to burn more and more energy as technology becomes more and more intertwined with our daily lives. And yet, the science is clear, globally, we must strive to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century in order to meet a 1.5°C climate change trajectory, as set out in the Paris Agreement.
To put this figure into context, under a 1.5°C of warming, it is very likely that the Arctic will have one sea-ice-free summer every 100 years, however at 2°C, the frequency increases to at least one every 10 years and this could have a dramatic impact on the world’s natural and economic systems1. It is critical we don’t miss the mark, and all processes, systems, and industries everywhere will play an important role in this transition. And considering all of this, it also begs the question – ‘Could I, personally, be doing more?’
Technology seems to be both the answer and the problem
Undoubtedly, technology is playing a significant role in helping with the transition to net-zero carbon emissions. Analysis from a report2 launched by TechUK and Deloitte suggests that digital technology already in the field can enable a reduction of 7.3 million tonnes of UK carbon emissions by 2030, equating to 15% of the overall reduction needed.
At the same time, it will be possible to unlock gross value added (GVA) benefits of £13.7bn by enabling other sectors to be flexible, automated, and efficient. Furthermore, with new use cases and applications being trialled and piloted, we know that businesses can help to enable even deeper cuts in carbon. However, whilst digital technology will underpin businesses ability to meet these targets, organisations must also bear in mind that the technology itself can have a substantial environmental footprint, also known as ‘digital pollution’.
Digital pollution can be broken down into emissions from three areas
Manufacturing of products (e.g. smartphones, laptops) and the use and maintenance of these devices. Researchers have estimated that emissions associated with smartphones reached 125 megatons of CO2 in 20203.
Data centres that store digital information and the networks, which transit digital information. A study cited by the Guardian4, predicted that by 2025 data centres could produce 3.2% of the global total of carbon emissions.
Digital products and services. One regular email emits approximately 4g of CO2, with this rising to about 50g with a large attachment5. This small amount really starts to add up when considering the volume of emails being sent every day. Moreover we’ve seen an increase in technology solutions such as Zoom, which also contribute to digital pollution.
Despite concerted efforts to increase energy efficiency in these areas, the rapid growth of the tech sector means that the overall footprint is increasing. The BBC6 recently found that digital pollution currently constitutes 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, and that digital pollution is the fastest growing source of carbon emissions in the world. What’s more, 72% of UK people are unaware it exists7.
How can we tackle this together?
Firstly, consider moving less efficient on-site data centres to cloud services. Data centres have historically been an important part of business transformation but given the amount of power they consume they can be a big contributor to our digital footprint. Fortunately, given the world’s heavy data consumption, there are ways to create a data centre infrastructure that minimises environmental impact.
“Moving all office workers in the U.S to the cloud could reduce the energy used by information technology by up to 87%.” – Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This is because these large-scale cloud providers can do weird and wonderful things to make their infrastructure cleaner and more efficient than on premise, with examples of this including:
- Google Cloud, who used DeepMind AI to reduce cooling by 40% and to get around 3.5 times the computing power out of the same amount of energy versus five years ago.
The usage is flexible and on-demand which means it can be scaled up and down when necessary so it is optimised at all times, this makes data centre usage much cheaper as well – what’s not to love?
Cloud providers have made ambitious commitments to reducing their adverse impact on the environment, for example: By 2030, Google will operate carbon-free and AWS will achieve 100% renewable energy usage by 2025. Their huge investments in renewable energy technology are helping to accelerate progress in these industries.
The solutions enable enterprise agility and allow businesses to undertake the massive change of transitioning to a net zero economy. They also help to democratise data and analytics and enable innovation through hackathons.
Secondly, we need to think more carefully about the products we are building. Take AI. It has huge potential in reducing the carbon footprint of industrial activities. For example in agriculture, AI can be used for precision fertilisation and irrigation to reduce input waste and improve crop management to increase yields8.
However, actually training an AI model requires significant energy, and hence can have a heavy carbon footprint depending on how that energy is produced – see graph below for a comparison of the carbon footprint of various activities against training an AI model, in the context of fossil fuel powered energy.
By all means, continue to develop and use AI, however when doing so, consider building in sustainability checks. Also when creating models and products, look at the cloud providers and data services you are building solutions on and seek to use the most energy efficient option possible.
Thirdly, consider how you can handle your e-waste sustainably. Following migration to the Cloud, you will need to consider how to deal with the physical e-waste leftover from the equipment that has been de-commissioned.
The company N2S is an example of a technology service provider that focuses on sustainable and circular IT, allowing customers to track the beneficial effect they have had on the environment after using their service (as well as supporting with the recovery of critical materials in legacy equipment). With a report by the BBC9 stating that “The 50 million tonnes of e-waste generated every year will more than double to 110 million tonnes by 2050”, this is becoming an ever-growing area of concern. When e-waste is recycled, there are net positive climate benefits in CO2 emissions and water consumption.
And finally, here are five things you can do to reduce your individual digital pollution:
Give your devices some TLC: Turn them off at night and don’t overcharge them – in keeping with ‘circular economy’ principles, it could help save energy and make them last longer. And if you want to go a step further at home, look into using a renewable energy supplier for your electricity, and think again about whether you really need to upgrade that device.
Clean up your email act: It’s estimated that Brits send 64 million unnecessary emails every day. Whilst the impact on the planet may be small, think about whether seeing fewer email notifications would also have a positive impact on your mental health. Does everyone really need that thank you email? Are you signed up to mailing lists you don’t use? Think about how you can lighten the load.
Aim for cloud nine: On a similar note, consider using cloud & file sharing technology instead. Sending links to editable versions of documents using these collaboration tools is a way to save on attaching files to an email. Just make sure you abide by your business’ privacy rules.
Think about audio calls rather than video calls when possible: Of course video can have a great impact when building relationships, but perhaps it’s only necessary for the first few minutes of the call before switching off the camera to focus on the content.
Delete any unnecessary documents from your shared drive folder: Review personal and work cloud usage and delete unnecessary photos and screenshots. Besides, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Tidy space, tidy mind.
Digital pollution and e-waste are realities of the modern world. But if we think thoughtfully and critically about the full life cycle of our technologies, we can ensure we are not just solving one business problem and at the same time creating another which may have a permanent impact on us all, and the world in which we live.