Uncomfortable truths

With the climate emergency literally on our collective doorstep, many of us (except perhaps for climate change deniers or the 1%) are reassessing our consumption patterns and trying hard to reduce our carbon footprint – not for abstract altruistic reasons, but to maximise the chances of our species’ near-to-mid-term survival, as Sir David Attenborough has cogently argued on many occasions.

Some of the big steps we must take are clear – greener diet, drastically reducing travel, better home insulation, far less consumption, more reusing and recycling – and many of us have already integrated some of these, to varying degrees, into slightly more sustainable lifestyles.

Whether this is all too little, too late, as David Wallace-Wells warned back in 2017, remains to be seen. But in our collective quest for sustainability, the massive impact that our online activities have on carbon emissions in an increasingly digital world are rarely considered or discussed. Why?

It might come as a surprise to some of us that the internet accounts for 10% of global electricity demand, rising to 20% by 2030. Much of this power (around 80%) is still produced by burning fossil fuels. By some estimates, the internet’s greenhouse gas emissions – at around 1 billion tonnes p.a. – are comparable to those of the aviation industry. But unlike aviation, with its roaring trails and heady fumes, our digital activity is stealthily quiet and virtually invisible in its ubiquity. It is so embedded in our daily lives that we no longer notice it – until the power goes out.

Even for people in our industry, the environmental impact of our digital activity can be hard to grasp, so it helps to break it down a bit:

  1. Think of all the hardware and peripherals we use to connect, all of which are created by emissions-heavy industrial production and mining for its essential raw materials. Think also of the e-waste that replacing our gadgets generates, coupled with limited recycling options. About 80% of these items’ carbon cost is sunk into their production, so the longer you resist buying the latest gadgets, the better.
  2. Consider all the infrastructure devices making up the physical internet, from cables and routers to switches and satellites, together with their own power consumption needs (plus all of the e-waste and recycling challenges under 1 above, but on a bigger scale).
  3. Remind yourself where all the data produced by our online activities sits. The ‘cloud’ is actually a huge and increasing number of high-capacity servers, sitting in physical data centres around the globe, maintained at low temperatures – additional refrigeration, water cooling, etc. – for optimal performance. Up to 90% of the data we collectively produce is replicated and unstructured, meaning they are of little use once created at high environmental cost, although internet companies have an interest in retaining as much of this as possible, given that data is the new oil.
  4. None of the above even considers the additional environmental impact of the always-on, everything-on-demand society that internet companies have enabled. Ordering a snack online because we cannot be bothered to do a weekly shop is more common than we think.

Literally everything we do online, from sending emails to scrolling social media, from watching Netflix to searching Google (or writing this post) contributes to digital pollution. To put this into context, this is how internet pioneer Gerry McGovern describes the challenge in his must-read 2020 book, World Wide Waste:

I want to help give you a feel for digital. I’m going to analyze how many trees would need to be planted to offset a particular digital activity. For example:

  • 1.6 billion trees would have to be planted to offset the pollution caused by email spam.

  • 1.5 billion trees would need to be planted to deal with annual e-commerce returns in the US alone.

  • 231 million trees would need to be planted to deal with the pollution caused as a result of the data US citizens consumed in 2019.

  • 16 million trees would need to be planted to offset the pollution caused by the estimated 1.9 trillion yearly searches on Google.

Crisis? What crisis?

When you stop to consider all this, it is hard to fathom why we do not discuss these issues more frequently, especially in our industry. Some of it may well be lack of awareness, though it is probably also true that the internet’s big names have little interest in openness. On a personal level, I am ashamed to admit that it took me a long time to fully appreciate the impact that my use of the internet has on the planet. Perhaps being an early actor in our industry meant that I never paused to scrutinise the dirty environmental underbelly of the ‘internet as a force for good’ I fell in love with in the 1990s, until fairly recently.

This does not mean that we should just stop using the internet or its connected devices and services wholesale, but we can become more deliberate and selective in what we do online, and how – i.e., embracing a degree of ‘digital sobriety’ as the Paris-based Shift Project puts it. This change alone will deliver a significant positive impact on internet-based emissions and power usage.

In professional settings, working digitally remains a better option than many of its analog alternatives – e.g., replacing frequent long-distance travel for meetings in favour of well-executed virtual meetings. But we also need to encourage better online behaviours. For example, reducing online meetings overall is good for morale, productivity and the environment.

Elsewhere, we have long argued for platform-based collaboration to replace internal email, but when you understand that a single email produces about 1 gram of CO2 (h/t Andrew Pope), with much more being produced by attachments, we can start to see this as another strong driver of corporate change. Companies already have well-established environmental and energy reporting standards, so it should be easy to add internet activity stats to these – perhaps also publishing these internally to nudge employees to adjust their behaviour.

But action also needs to be taken at the state and international levels to regulate, legislate and enforce. The mindless mining of crypto currencies is single-handedly responsible for astonishingly high levels of energy consumption and emissions, something which is only just beginning to be addressed by law-makers in the US (but there is a very long way to go). Similarly, when you realise that about 70% of global email traffic is actually spam, action really should be taken against those ISPs (including household names) that continue to facilitate this deeply annoying, often illegal, and environmentally damaging traffic. States should also require cloud companies and ISPs to report on their energy consumption and emissions, just as we require other industries to do.

At the individual level, and in our private lives, there are many small actions we can take which, repeated at scale, can create powerful network effects. See for example some of the tips for reducing your digital carbon footprint hereherehere, and here.

Good luck to us all!

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash