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Digitalisation – Blessing or Curse for the Environment and Society?

This content is extracted from a blog article from RESET, 2019.

Every single search query, every streamed song or video and every email sent, billions of times over all around the world - it all adds up to an ever-increasing global demand for electricity, and to rising CO2 emissions too. Our increasing reliance on digital tools has an environmental impact that's becoming increasingly harder to ignore.

Digital tools and services are an integral part of our lives. It’s hard to imagine a life without smartphones, apps, Wikipedia, online banking, route planners with GPS and having a huge selection of music and movies at your fingertips pretty much everywhere, around the clock. All of these things make our lives so much easier. But it's not only in day-to-day life that digitalisation has become indispensable; digital technologies are also playing an increasingly important role in agriculture and industry, in the transition to renewable energies and in the future of our cities. At the same time, digitalisation offers new solutions for tackling climate change and protecting the environment. Reporting on them is an important part of what we do here at RESET, and our news blog is full of good examples.

However, just because we can’t physically see or touch the data that we’re sending and receiving all over the globe, it actually carries rather heavy baggage: its energy consumption is constantly growing, the smart devices we use are often produced under exploitative and environmentally harmful conditions and, at the end of their far too short lives, they end up as toxic electronic waste.

This poses a very important question: will digitalisation be able to help us on the way to a greener and fairer world, or will our growing reliance on digital tools ultimately prove to be an accelerator for climate change and the destruction of the planet?

Right now, the question is still open. Let’s take a closer look at the main causes of our digital carbon footprint - and also who and what is working to mitigate its climate impact.

1. How big is the world's digital carbon footprint?

More than half of the world's population is now online. According to a report by the digital agency We Are Social, more than four billion people used the Internet in 2019 - with more than one million people coming online for the first time each day. And with online activities such as cloud computing, streaming services and cashless payment systems on the up, the demand for online and digital services is constantly growing.

The non-profit organisation The Shift Project (2019 - PDF) looked at nearly 170 international studies on the environmental impact of digital technologies. According to the experts, their share of global CO2 emissions increased from 2.5 to 3.7 percent between 2013 and 2018. That means that our use of digital technologies now actually causes more CO2 emissions and has a bigger impact on global warming than the entire aviation industry! According to estimates, the aviation industry caused around 2.5 percent (and rising) of emissions.

These figures may vary slightly from study to study, as the energy consumption of digital technologies is difficult to quantify: because too little data is available, because technological advances and changing consumption habits cause them to change rapidly and because they're highly dependent on certain conditions (for example, the type of power that's being used). Researchers in a new study criticise the fact that the Shift Project figures were calculated using outdated data. The short study "Climate protection through digital technologies" (Klimaschutz durch digitale Technologien) from the Borderstep Institute compares various studies and comes to the conclusion that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the production, operation and disposal of digital end devices and infrastructures are between 1.8 and 3.2 percent of global emissions (as of 2020).

Even if it's hard to work out specific figures, it is clear that our digital world has a huge energy appetite, especially if you include not only the use, but also the production, of our digital devices.

2.  What digital activities are using the most energy?

Jens Gröger, senior researcher at the Öko-Institut, estimates that each search query emits around 1.45 grams of CO2. If we use a search engine to make around 50 search queries per day, this produces a huge 26 kilograms of CO2 per year.

Doesn’t sound like a lot? Not at an individual level. But Google itself, in its 2017 Environmental Report 2017, puts its carbon footprint for 2016 at 2.9 million tons of CO2e and its electrical energy consumption at 6.2 terawatt hours (TWh).

But online searches are by no means the core of the problem: one of the biggest causes of the internet's huge power consumption is in fact music and video streaming. According to research by The Shift Project, 80 percent of all data flows through the net in the form of moving images. Online videos - available on different platforms and viewed without being downloaded - account for almost 60 percent of global data transfer. Transmitting these moving images requires huge amounts of data. And the higher the resolution, the more data is sent and received.

According to The Shift Project, the CO2 consumption of streamed online video is the same as Spain in a year. Ralph Hintemann at the Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability stresses that while video streaming causes high greenhouse gas emissions, no one knows exactly how high the figures are. Concrete figures are difficult to determine because the results depend heavily on the choice of device, the type of network connection and the resolution.

Using the internet on a mobile phone uses the most power, because buildings, vegetation and weather weaken the electromagnetic waves. That means that higher transmission power is required. But even with old copper cables, the signal has to be amplified, especially over long distances. Fibre optic cables, which transmit the signals via light, are definitely the most efficient form of transmission technology.

Music streaming also comes off quite badly: a new study by the universities of Glasgow and Oslo shows that music streaming services emitted around 200 to 350 million kilograms of greenhouse gas in 2015 and 2016. That means that using streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music is in many cases more harmful to the climate than the production (and subsequent disposal) of CDs or records.

Cloud computing is another major power guzzler. This is where data is no longer stored locally on a computer or smartphone, but on servers that can be located anywhere in the world, meaning it can be accessed anytime and anywhere. Checking your email via gmail and backing up your photos to the cloud are just two examples of these kind of services.

Most cryptocurrencies also consume large amounts of energy. One example of this is Bitcoin, probably the best-known digital currency. According to calculations by the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index (2018), a single Bitcoin transaction consumes around 819 kWh. The same amount of energy could operate a 150-watt refrigerator for about eight months. And in a 2018 study, the Technical University of Munich determined that the entire Bitcoin system produces around 22 megatons of carbon dioxide per year, the same as the CO2 footprint of cities such as Hamburg, Vienna or Las Vegas. But it’s not only the Bitcoin blockchain that’s energy-intensive. Other blockchains and distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) also entail a huge demand for energy. In our recent RESET Special Feature looking at how blockchain can be used for real-world positive impact, we delved even deeper into the question of whether blockchain and sustainability can ever truly go together.

Our digital energy consumption isn’t only determined by what we do, but also how we do it; the software we use also has a big impact. For example, a less efficient word processor needs four times as much energy to process the same document as an efficient one. While at the same time, software updates often cause computers or smartphones to slow down or stop working, forcing consumers to buy new hardware.

And in the future, digitalisation’s growing demand for electricity will certainly also be driven by an increase in smart technologies, such as those we are increasingly using at home, in the IoT sector, in industry and in our increasingly digitalised cities.

3. All roads lead to... energy-hungry data centres

Every action, no matter how small, that is carried out online, travels in the form of a data packet through data centres and their servers. Looking at the energy use of data centres therefore gives us an idea of just how energy-hungry digitalisation is. It’s impossible to say with any certainty how high the current energy requirements of all data centres worldwide are. Current estimated calculations range from 200 to 500 billion kilowatt hours per year, an estimated 3% of the world’s electricity.

And future predictions differ considerably too - with figures between 200 billion and 3,000 billion kilowatt hours predicted for the year 2030.

For more info, have a look at the “Towards Digital Sobriety” report from the Shift Project (2019).

5.1 Impact of Internet: Welcome
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