There is rising interest and debate on the carbon emissions of digital solutions and the ICT (information and communications technology) sector. Some examples compare the carbon footprint of streaming media or the use of electronic devices to taking a flight or running a refrigerator. While the consumption of digital devices has been on the rise, with the carbon footprint of IT consisting of 1.4% of overall emissions, many falsely problematise its impact using flawed or inaccurate figures. Read on to find out more about the impact of ICT emissions, why there is an imminent need to decarbonise, and how we can use IT to reduce our carbon footprint.
The impact of our activities
The ICT-related emissions of services such as gaming, social media, emails, streaming and online advertising make up a significant percentage of the industry’s footprint. The amount of GHG generated by energy needed to transmit music even is currently predicted to be between 200 and 300 million kilograms. Despite music currently favouring online platforms, it is debated whether buying a physical album may be more environmentally friendly in the long run as streaming an album over the internet more than 27 times will likely use more energy than it takes to produce and manufacture a CD record. Inefficient designs and streaming practices may aggravate our impact on these emissions.
Website design inefficiency
The Website Carbon Calculator is a free tool which anyone can use easily to estimate the CO2 emissions of any website. By identifying a correlation between data transfer and energy consumption, as well as between energy consumption and emissions, it looks at CO2 per page view to understand the efficiency of each site and compares it with other sites. For instance, the most efficient website tested by them is muskfoundation.org, which is a single page referencing the work done by Elon Musk’s non-profit foundation. It emits about 0.009 grams of CO2 per page view. Compared to this, the least efficient website has been royal.uk with 21.57 grams of CO2 per page view. This is considerably higher, particularly if we consider the amount of traffic the website will have received as a result of the death of the Queen.
As best practice, removing non-native fonts, excess and large photos, videos, graphics, and unnecessary scripts can improve the load time and carbon efficiency of any website.
Streaming videos and downloading music is said to consume enormous amounts of electricity. It is claimed that the electricity used when driving an electric car for about 0.6km is equal to that used when streaming a two-hour video to a laptop.
However, electricity consumption for streaming is dependent on the device and not on the usage, which is why such comparisons may be incorrect. In reality, elements connected to networks, data centres and customer premises equipment (CPE) is fairly constant.
The electricity consumption of networks and data centres must be based on large amounts of data from real networks to reflect accuracy. In a rough comparison, streaming 400 two-hour movies on a laptop connected to an external screen would consume as much electricity as a modern fridge does in a year. If the streaming was on a smartphone, 2,900 films could be streamed using the same amount of electricity.
Estimations reveal that streaming videos on a laptop uses considerably less electricity than devices such as DVDs or Blu-ray Discs, with one hour of video streaming requiring 7.9 megajoules (MJ) of energy, compared to as much as 12 MJ for traditional DVD viewing. This emits 0.4 kg of CO2 compared to 0.71 kg of CO2 for DVD viewing. It is good to note that the amount of energy used online decreases when music or video is downloaded, as the data is stored closer to the user reducing the need to stream over distance. Similarly using a device over a mobile network is at least twice as energy intensive than using it over wifi.
With the pandemic many people have gotten into the habit of having video meetings instead of travelling to meet in person, resulting in a reduction of travel emissions. You can take it even further: a study by Purdue University has shown that turning your camera off during calls can reduce emissions by 96% — something to keep in mind at least while you’re waiting for people to join and during tea breaks! Streaming standard-definition rather than high-definition videos can cut emissions by 86%.
An avenue of innovation
Apart from reducing carbon footprint, digital technologies and the ICT sector can be powerful tools for innovation. They can provide opportunities to accelerate decarbonisation in line with societal goals. The Exponential Climate Action Roadmap suggests that digital technologies can already help reduce global carbon emissions by 15% and help reach the 50% reduction required by 2030. Solutions in energy, manufacturing, agriculture, land use, buildings, services, transportation and traffic management — including developments such as 5G, the Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) — can all help catalyse these reductions.
Commitments from big corporations such as Microsoft, Facebook and Apple further highlight IT’s potential to reach emission targets. With Apple already switching to 100% renewable energy, Microsoft committing to carbon negativity, Spotify currently making moves towards being 100% carbon neutral and Facebook pledging net-zero emissions across its value chain by 2030, we can already recognise the support shown by this shift in the IT sector.
Doing our part
ICT solutions have helped people move to more sustainable lifestyles by switching to more efficient technologies. However, we all need to help stabilise the climate and safeguard our planetary boundaries. Even though the ICT share of our carbon is small, we can still contribute more to lowering our collective emissions further through managing our devices and changing our habits.
Managing our devices focuses on improving their lifecycle. We can do this by buying secondhand or refurbished hardware as the production phase accounts for 80% of the lifecycle carbon emissions of mobile devices, and focus on using our ICT gadgets for longer before upgrading, and recycling our old ones. Similarly, streaming digital services on small devices and charging batteries through renewable sources can also help us make a change to reduce our emissions and increase the effectiveness of our consumption habits.
Changing our habits such as closing unnecessary tabs, avoiding videos, regularly unsubscribing from newsletters and notifications, and deleting spam emails can have a surprisingly large positive impact. Each spam email takes up about 0.3g CO2e, and if each one of the 3.9 billion email users deletes 10 emails a day, it could cut around 39,035 metric tonnes of CO2e worldwide.
Lastly, removing vampire power — unplugging devices from outlets or turning them off at the wall socket — can prevent standby energy loss.
The way forward
Our greatest challenge is to ensure that technology can have a clear and positive impact on the planet and everyone on it. Adopting more eco-conscious behaviours at an individual level, with the support of governments’ and businesses’ commitment and innovation, will help achieve sustainability goals.