Environment and technology: our digital carbon footprint

We spend more and more time connected, for work or just to watch a video. But how important are our online actions in terms of CO2 emissions and pollution?

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The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation, changing our lives and the way we relate to technology on a daily basis. From smart-working to distance learning, from video conferences to online events, from e-commerce to home banking, our use of the internet has grown exponentially. Apparently, moving online activities would seem to reduce pollution for the benefit of the environment, but is that really the case?

What is the digital environmental footprint?

Computers, electronic devices and digital infrastructures are consuming ever increasing amounts of electricity. This is confirmed by Milena Gabanelli who, during her DataRoom on Corriere della Sera, reports interesting data on the harmful emissions produced by the technology and their use. In 2008, for example, digital technologies used in the transmission, reception and processing of data and information (ICT) contributed 2% to global CO2e emissions; in 2020 they reached 3.7% and will reach 8.5% in 2025, the equivalent of the emissions of all light vehicles in circulation.

How much do digital electricity consumption weigh?

Watching a high-definition video in streaming for 10 minutes is equivalent, in terms of energy impact, to using a 2,000 W electric oven at full power for 3 minutes. But what we pay is only the energy consumed by the smartphone, while the traffic that travels on the Internet, made up of data that has been acquired, stored, processed in some Data Center – where the digital services we use remotely are created – consumes huge amounts of electricity.

The Cloud is not a cloud

We are used to thinking of the Cloud as an abstract, immaterial entity, while instead it is a physical infrastructure located elsewhere, composed of optical fibers, routers, satellites, cables on the ocean floor, endless processing centers full of computers, which requires colossal amounts of energy and cooling systems. These consumptions are neither known nor visible by the end user, who instead pays the Gigabytes of traffic to the telephone operators, and to the content providers, the subscription or the purchase of films, TV series, etc.

Streaming videos: how much energy they consume

According to the independent association The Shift Project – reports Milena Gabanelli – which considers the system as a whole and elaborates average estimates, watching 10 minutes of streaming video consumes 1500 times more electricity than charging the battery of a smartphone. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), consumption is instead 150 times, because the estimates are made on data from individual players (in particular Netflix) and on specific cases of combinations: the type of device, resolution of the content, and connection.

It is still huge consumption, but how is it possible that the estimates are so different? The answer is that there are no global, measurement-based data on energy consumption induced by digital uses. No standards defined to track them. What is certain is that to watch streaming videos on the big screen of a very high definition TV, the energy consumption is gigantic. In Italy alone, from 24 to 26 December, viewing of movies in streaming went from 2.8 million hours in 2019 to 6.5 million in 2020. The use of smart TVs via smart TV has grown by 1000%. 143%.

Do data centers use clean or dirty energy?

In 2017 Greenpeace published a report in which it observes the energy footprint of large Data Center operators and about 70 websites and applications. Apple’s operations in the US use clean energy 83% of the time. 67% Facebook, 56% Google, 32% Microsoft, 23% Adobe, 8% Oracle. Little is known about Amazon, and the company is also expanding its activities in geographical areas where mainly dirty energy is used, which it claims to balance by buying offsetting credits. The same thing does Netflix, which relies on Cloud Amazon.

Artificial intelligence

Researchers at the Amherst University of Massachusetts have provided an evaluation of the energy needed to “train” advanced models of natural language processing: it can emit 284 tons of CO2 and almost five times those of the average life of a car American, production included. We can see this as a price to pay for systems that can provide intelligent answers to complex questions, or recognize images.

How heavy is the production phase

The energy efficiency of digital devices and infrastructures is constantly improving, and this is good for the environment, but it means that smartphones, tablets, computers, connected TVs have to be changed often, and this does nothing but produce an enormous amount of difficult to dispose of waste. The energy consumption of the life cycle of these objects, i.e. from the extraction of rare minerals, to production, transport, disposal, are respectively around 83% of the total consumption for the smartphone, 80% for a laptop, 60% for a connected TV. This is even before they go on sale.

The solutions pass from the correct analysis of the data

In addition to proposing a detailed analysis of the cost of Digital Transformation, Milena Gabanelli also proposes solutions. Sustainable IT must involve all the figures who design and manage the interconnected world, and requires interdisciplinary research between environmental sciences, information science and the various engineering disciplines, to have shared metrics and standards.

“Managing the conflict between large players who want to sell more and more devices, control data, produce content, sell increasingly powerful devices, and the environment, which does not have an equally strong defender, requires governance skills. Also by public IT managers. Specific clauses must be defined in the contracts for IT services in the Cloud, requiring transparency from suppliers in declaring which sources of electricity they are supplied from, and presupposes the ability to recognize serious work from banal greenwashing”.

What can we do?

One solution could be to change the device a little less frequently, avoid the compulsive use of sending videos and images, not keep useless apps that update continuously, producing traffic that we don’t realize. Small gestures that are good for the environment and for us.

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