Is our digital footprint killing the planet?

The United Nations have said that climate change is the defining crisis of our time and time is running out. There is now a large scientific consensus that humans are the leading cause of climate change. We all can play our part and consume, waste and emit less. However, did you know that your online digital activities are not as clean as you might have thought and may have serious consequences for the planet too.

1. Introduction

The United Nations have said that climate change is the defining crisis of our time, [1] and time is running out. The agreements and compromises that governments reached at the 2021 COP26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow, although incredibly important, probably don’t go far enough and will probably not be enough to limit global temperature rise to 2 °C. [2] This rise is being fuelled by increased greenhouse gas emissions which blanket the Earth and trap in the Sun’s heat. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas and since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the Earth’s temperature has been increasing at a much faster rate. During the last two centuries the level of carbon dioxide has risen by 40%. [3] There is now a large scientific consensus that humans are the leading cause of climate change through activities such as burning fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), deforestation, agriculture and cement. [4] The effects of climate change are already impacting our world through changes in rainfall patterns, rising sea levels and the increased risk of heatwaves, floods, droughts and fires. [5]

Many people already know that we all need to play our part and consume, waste and emit less, and many people will be making a daily effort to do so. However, you may not have realised that your online digital activities are not as clean as you might have thought, and may have serious consequences for the climate too.

This article seeks to shine a light on the question ‘Is our digital footprint killing the planet?’ and by raising awareness, empower organisations and individuals to make better and more conscious digital choices for the planet.

2. The invisible problem

Today, global economic activity is primarily based on the creation, storing, processing and consumption of data. We use online technology to keep us connected, to do our work, in education, shopping, entertainment and much more. Much of what defines us as individuals, from our memories to our sense of our own bodies, can be augmented with smart devices. We are now being tracked, facially recognised and monitored as never before and Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems are pervasive in defining our outcomes, from the type of news we see, music and videos we watch to the prices we are offered for products and services online.

Online technology is everywhere, and the data being created and consumed globally is growing exponentially. This is being fuelled by the global technology companies’ consumption-based business models, AI and fanned by our own insatiable appetite for ever more data and connected devices.

A World Economic Forum article in 2019 suggested that each day we post: [6]

  • More than 350 million photos and 100 million hours of video on Facebook,
  • Two billion minutes of voice and video calls on WhatsApp,
  • 95 million photos and videos on Instagram.
    Add to this the millions of downloads and streams from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney +, YouTube, TikTok and other platforms.

But we shouldn’t be surprised by this. In a 2018 report from ‘The Children’s Commissioner for England’, our children’s digital footprints begin when their first baby photos are upload to social media. By the age of 13, well-meaning parents will have posted on average 1,300 photos and videos of their child. The amount of information explodes when children also start engaging with online platforms, posting on social media an average of 26 times a day results in a staggering 70,000 post by age of 18! [7]

At the beginning of 2020, global data from online activities were estimated to be 44 zettabytes, (that’s 44 and 21 zeros), or 44,000 giga gigabytes, an incredible amount. By 2025 they estimated that this will be growing at a rate of 463 exabytes per day, (that’s 463 with 18 zeros), or 463 giga giga bytes. [6] And all this data requires billions of digital devices and energy on a massive scale.

Internet eco system

The eco system surrounding today’s internet is responsible for an estimated 3.7% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions, and its growing. By 2025 it is expected to have increased to over 5% [8] This is more than the global aviation industry at 1.9% and the shipping industry at 1.7%. [9]

The internet eco system is the most complex system ever built by humans and, in a relatively short time, we have all become dependent on it. This makes it a challenge to estimate its carbon footprint. However this is what we need to do to make sense of where we are and to make our own conscious decisions about our personal relationship with it going forward.

Key components (production and use):

  • Devices - smartphones, watches, iPads, computers, TVs, Internet of Things (IoT), etc
  • Networks - WIFI, mobile, broadband, fibre, communications infrastructure, etc
  • Data centres

For example, in the EU, energy consumption from data centres alone, a key part of the internet and cloud computing, is expected to have increased from 2.7% in 2018 to 3.2% in 2030, [10] despite massive gains in efficiency. But it’s important to remember that data centres are just one part of the eco system. In fact, the energy consumption of producing equipment and devices accounts for 45% of this eco systems energy costs. [8]

Pollution on a massive scale – Electronic or electrical waste (E-waste)

E-waste is defined as any electronic or electrical equipment that has been discarded.
The internet eco system uses billions of Information Technology (IT) devices and equipment which makes a significant and growing contribution to global E-waste.

There are now more internet-related electronic products produced every year than there are humans on the earth. [11]

The amount of E-waste produced in the world in 2019 was 53.6 million tonnes, [12] equivalent to the weight of 4,500 Eiffel Towers and enough to cover an area the size of Manhattan, USA in one year. [11] It is predicted to increase by another 38% by 2030. [12]

This increase in demand is being fuelled by consumerism, Internet of Things (IoT), advances in technology and shorter lifetimes, support and obsolesce. [13] But only 17.4% of the E-waste generated was registered as having been recycled, with the fate of the remaining 82.6% uncertain. This means that we are throwing away more than $57 billion of high value materials and scarce resources including gold, silver, copper and platinum each year. [14]

3. Streaming video

The way we consume media has dramatically changed. Now we have instant online access to as much content as we want. This has resulted in significantly more being created and consumed than ever before. It’s now possible for people to binge watch a whole TV series in one sitting and we are actively being encouraged to do so, through cliff-hangers and advertising, and changing social and cultural norms. In a 2017 interview, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings identified our need to sleep as one of the company’s biggest competitors. [15]

In 2019 video accounted for 60.6% of the total internet downstream volume worldwide, that is data being received by consumers, of which 12.6% was Netflix. [16] The following example examines the carbon cost of just watching a one-hour video show on Netflix, but it’s important to recognise that Amazon Prime, Disney and other platforms are likely to yield similar results.

The digital carbon footprint of watching a one-hour show on Netflix will depend on the device you use, the data networks and centres streaming the video and whether its standard, high definition or 4k. However, the biggest factor will be the generation mix of renewables, nuclear, gas and coal, in the electricity supply.

There are widely varying estimates for the carbon emissions for streaming video. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), [17] which has reported some of the lowest emissions figures for video streaming:

  • In a UK eco system - streaming 4K on a 50-inch (127cm) TV for 1 hour produces 35g of carbon emissions compared to 17g for boiling a kettle. But on a smartphone streaming Standard Definition (SD) over 4G, carbon emissions dramatically reduce to just 1g.
  • If you are in Germany or the USA, boiling a kettle produces 29g of carbon emissions and the streaming emissions are approximately double at 62g.
  • Whereas in France they are approximately a fifth of the UK.

The carbon emissions of watching a one-hour show on Netflix in the UK is equivalent to boiling a kettle twice.

Netflix, through their participation in DIMPACT, a collaborative research initiative, [18] estimate one hour of streaming on Netflix in 2020 to be well under 100g of carbon emissions. [18,19] The Carbon Trust estimate the European average to be 55g to 56g of carbon emission for every hour of streaming video. [19, 20] It all depends on how you do the calculations, where the video is streamed and consumers are watching from, over what networks and on what device.

Irrespective of how we do the calculations, on a personal level it doesn’t feel like we are damaging the planet by our individual actions. However, we are all part of the huge consumption of streaming video, with Netflix’s Bridgeton Series 1 being watched by 82 million viewers. [21] So, whilst our own one-hour viewing might be equivalent to a 300m car journey, [22] our collective viewing of Netflix’s Bridgeton Series 1 equates to 18,600km (11,557.5 miles), or approximately 46% of the equatorial distance round the earth.

Note: In this example carbon emissions, refers to carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon emission equivalent (CO2e).

It’s complicated
In the UK as an individual or an organisation, you can choose to buy your electricity from a supplier that offers you electricity use from renewable sources. They achieve this by offsetting your electricity consumption through a combination of direct renewable generation and the purchase of Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin (REGO) purchased from Ofgem and/or Guarantees of Origin (GoOs) from EU member states recognised by Ofgem. [23] The combination of direct and indirect purchase of renewable energy enables businesses and organisations to claim to be Carbon Neutral. However, to be Carbon Free requires the use of only directly generated renewable energy at the time it’s being used.

In 2020 the electricity supply mix in the UK electricity grid included 37% gas and almost 2% coal, [24] so there is currently a finite renewable capacity for individuals and organisations to purchase in-country renewably generated electricity. The UK government has set an ambitious target for the UK electricity supply to be fossil fuel free by 2035. [25]

But the data you use might be hosted in another country and use multiple networks to reach you!

The key message when it comes to our digital carbon footprint is that until the country where we live and the countries where we access data can generate nearly all their electricity from clean sources, we can’t avoid the issue of climate change when we use our digital devices.

4. Digital transformation to a greener future?

The digital transformation of our societies is one of the key opportunities we have to tackle climate change and reduce our carbon footprint. Transport is the largest emitting sector in the UK, accounting for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, with 68% coming from cars & taxis.[26] Through the digital transformation of our work we have the opportunity to substitute some of these journeys with potentially more carbon efficient online communications. But video conferencing is video streaming and has a carbon footprint too.

During the pandemic online technology has played a critical part in keeping our economies functioning, our children educated, and people connected. The way we work and think about work has changed. Many employees now work remotely from home or hybrid, with some days in the office. Whilst this way of working offers many benefits, the downside is that we are spending more time at work and the boundaries between our professional and personal lives have blurred, and this has come at a cost to our health and wellbeing. [27]

Global technology companies are some of the leaders in investing in and using renewable energy, and becoming carbon zero in the operations parts of their businesses, for example:

  • Google have been carbon neutral since 2007 and aim to be carbon free by 2030. [28]
  • Facebook achieved net zero emissions in their operations in 2020. [29]
  • Netflix will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions at the end of 2022. [20]
  • Microsoft has been carbon neutral across the world since 2012 and commits to being carbon negative by 2030. [30]

However, this is only a part of the story and tech’s contribution to climate change seldom makes the headlines. For example, smartphones and computer operating systems, as well as programs, become unsafe to use when they are no longer supported with updates and security fixes. This forced obsolescence might be good for business but is contributing to the global E-waste problem.

It may surprise you to know that on 20th September 2021 tech workers from twelve global technology giants joined the global climate strike highlighting tech’s role in climate change. [31]

5. The dark side

In the 2020 Netflix documentary-drama ‘The Social Dilemma’, [32] another side of the global technology companies’ business model was depicted, the one that drives their advertising-based business models, and which has made them some of the richest companies on the planet. [33] We live in an attention economy and our attention is one of the scarcest resources. It’s so valuable that some of the richest companies in the world are not only in competition for it, but will even use psychological means to get more of it.

In the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the more computing resources you have the better and more accurate the model, but the larger its impact on the climate. A 2018 report estimated the carbon footprint of training one large natural language processing (NLP) model was 300,000kg, equivalent to 125 round trip flights from NYC to Beijing. [34]

Similarly, mobile network operators regularly advertise the latest smartphone and high data packages, and actively promote upgrading, but they omit to mention costs to sustainability.

From high-definition video streaming, auto play and embedded videos, online gaming and addictive design, they are all aimed at maximising consumption. And Mark Zuckerburg’s bet on a Metaverse future [35] may take data consumption to another level still.

But these business models are based on increased and excessive consumption of materials, equipment and energy which results in a growing negative impact on our climate, which can't be fully offset and is unsustainable at a time where carbon emissions need to be reduced. [1] and when we all have to live more sustainably and reduce our carbon footprint.

Is it now time to question the sustainability of our always on digital culture?

6. Why it’s so hard to see

It’s hard for us to comprehend these impacts when most of them are invisible to us, and all we can see is a small smartphone in our hands.

So, we don’t see:

  • The mobile networks that now carry most of our data and that are regularly upgraded to handle ever increasing amounts. Every new mobile network generation brings with it the consumption of billions more new devices worldwide.
  • The millions of data centres around the world where websites, games and videos are stored and streamed.
  • The gas and coal fired power stations that are still providing much of the electricity that delivers the global internet eco system.
  • How soaring E-waste affects the health of millions of children worldwide. [36]
  • The colossal amount of computing power and electricity consumption of Bitcoin mining, consuming more electricity than that of the Netherlands [37]
  • The hidden costs of an AI future [34]

Similar to our use of plastic, we don’t see how our own relatively small consumption is amplified millions of times by an estimated 4.66 billion active internet users worldwide, [38] 59.5% of the global population. [39] We didn’t wake up to ocean plastic pollution until around 2015, although scientific evidence that there was a major problem had been accumulating since the 1990s. [40] Are we making the same mistake with E-waste?

7. We can all make a difference

With problems of this scale and complexity it’s easy to feel powerless and fall into the ‘enemy narrative’ looking to attribute blame to others such as governments and large corporations around the world. [41] Without detracting at all from the urgent actions that only they can and must take, or the responsibility that we all have to keep applying pressure on them, the ‘enemy narrative’ is far too simplistic and hides the impact that millions of ordinary people can have on climate change through individual actions.

Every one of us is a consumer of digital products and services. To a greater or lesser extent, we all fuel the demand that has made the global technology companies incredibly rich. We do this through the devices we buy, the video streaming we watch, the social media, websites, games and apps we use, and the bitcoins we purchase and spend. We buy smart speakers and online doorbells, cameras, fridges and toys for our homes and wearable tech for our bodies.

Online technology can be really useful and help us to reduce our carbon footprint if it replaces something that emits more. We all make these choices, and what we choose makes a difference to climate change.

Personal technology use.
Everyone’s circumstances will be different and so there will be no ‘one size fits all’ solution, however here are a few things you might want to reflect on in your personal use of online technology:

  • Can you delay upgrading your smartphone, iPad, TVs and other electronic devices or get them repaired to reduce your E-waste?
  • Can you consume less videos and/or stream them at lower data rates?
  • Is it necessary to use blockchain crypto currencies like Bitcoin?
  • Do you really need everything to be online and always connected or are more environmentally friendly alternatives just as effective? For example:
  • Video doorbells and other video surveillance devices
  • Connected watches, toys, toothbrushes, smart speakers etc.

We could even use the ‘off’ button and create environments within our homes where there are no digital distractions or surveillance technologies.

Work technology use.
If you have the opportunity or autonomy, here are a few things you might want to reflect on in your work use of online technology:

  • Video conferencing is a great way to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the number of journeys, however:
  • Is a video meeting necessary, or will a phone call be just as effective?
  • Are you inviting more attendees that are necessary because it’s easy to do so?
  • Do you need to have your camera on all the time?
  • Are you suffering from back-to-back video calls with little time to prepare or recover?
  • Are you able to include regular breaks to rest your eyes, restore your attention and move your body?
  • Is the hosting of your company’s cloud facilities and your office electricity supplies from renewable sources?
  • Are your company’s web site and software applications designed with energy efficiency in mind?

8. Why a healthy technology relationship matters to you as well as the planet.

Technology is dramatically changing the way we live as humans. It affects how we communicate, our behaviour, and even how we think and feel. Online technology is everywhere, in our workplaces, our homes and even on our bodies.

We are sitting and starring at screens for longer and this increase in sedentary lifestyle is linked with many long-term health issues. The UK Chief Medical Office reports that physical inactivity accounts for 1 in 6 UK deaths, (equal to smoking). The UK population is around 20% less active than in the 1960s and projected to be 35% less active by 2030. However, exercising just 150 minutes per week can help to prevent or manage over 20 chronic conditions and diseases, including some cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and depression. [42]

Digital wellbeing is not just about screen time, it’s about being able to use technology sustainably as a useful tool that supports your personal goals, aspirations and health. It’s about being fully present and engaged with the people standing next to us. It’s about working in an environment where you can work creatively, productively and safely with technology. One that supports your physical and mental health rather than increasing stress, anxiety, exhaustion and burnout. [27]

Being more in control of your digital life helps reduce the effectiveness of the psychological techniques deployed by the technology companies to keep you engaged for longer and to keep coming back for more. [32] Less time for the advertisers means more time for your priorities, and you’re helping reduce carbon emissions too.

9. Summary

In this article I set out to shine a light on the question ‘Is our digital footprint killing the planet?’ and in the process have shown that our perception of these services being ‘clean’ and without significant cost to our planet is an illusion. However, unlike our ubiquitous use of plastic, which we now know has devastating consequences, we are not yet linking the many different facets of the internet eco system with the commercial behaviour of global technology companies or our own consumption of data.

When we look at our screens, we don’t see the unsustainability and carbon emissions of mining the raw materials that they and the internet’s eco system devour, the mountains of E-waste they generate or the fossil fuel energy they consume. It’s easy to focus just on the areas where online technology improves our lives and can reduce carbon emissions, and forget the uncomfortable truth: that everything we do, from the food that we eat, the energy, products and services we consume, how we work and travel, all either directly or indirectly release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and are impacting our climate.

It’s also easy to fall victim to the ‘enemy narrative’ and look to attribute blame to others such as governments and large corporations around the world and not to see the role that we play, as consumers and voters, in creating the demand and the pressure for change.

We need to hold organisations more accountable for their full digital carbon costs, not just the electricity they consume. So, if your smartphone manufacturer ends the support life of your phone after just a few years, we should hold them more to account for the billions of devices that end up as E-waste. Similarly, for the mobile network operators when they offer early upgrades. It would also help us all if developers of websites, apps, programs and AI systems would design with minimising carbon costs as a goal.

As humans, we have evolved to be able to imagine and shape our future. So, each of us can question how we use our digital technology and choose to consume it in a more sustainable way, and in the process our digital footprint won’t cost us the earth.


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