The Carbon Cost of a Digital Lifestyle

Published by Neil on

There is no doubting that technology, and specifically Information Technology, have transformed our world. The way we work, the way we do business, how we communicate with colleagues and family, the way we workout and the way we use our leisure time.

And being better connected, more engaged with global issues we can experience in ultra HD and taking advantage of paperless billing is all positive for the planet we live in, right? But do we always comprehend the impact this move to digital is having on the environment, especially in terms of sheer energy consumption?

There’s been a long term trend towards increasing digital media consumption which this has been compounded and accelerated by the impact of covid-19 restrictions in different parts of the world. As increasing numbers of people adapt to increasing proportions of their time at home – working from home and spending more time at home during different periods of social restrictions – so our consumption of digital media and comms platforms such as video calling has ballooned.

And the carbon impact of this shift might be surprising. Although each tweet, email or video call might seem to have a relatively small impact, and on the face of it preferable to the real-world alternatives, the proliferation of use of digital in both business and personal worlds means the sheer volume of emails, tweets and other ways of communicating is something to take very seriously.

In fact, according to some estimates, the carbon footprint of our devices, the internet and the systems that support them account for as much as 3.7% of global emissions – similar to the airline industry.

Take email. Short text only emails are estimated to account for 0.3g C02, while an email with a picture attached could generate almost 20 times as much – 50g CO2 – due to the additional energy required to upload, store, send and for the recipient to receive their copy of the email and the image.

Social media is arguably an entirely new form of communication. A tweet or a post can be uploaded once but viewed hundreds of times by even the most low-key user and that browsing of pictures, videos and gifs from around the world adds to the total energy consumption of us as users and of businesses as they publish more and more high quality content on their social profiles to drive engagement.

In the consumer world, the rise in streaming or downloaded entertainment is well documented. Consumption of streaming TV and downloadable and online console games have all seen huge rises, accelerating a steady growing trend over the last few years.

And while streaming music also has an impact, it may not be as much as you might think. According to papers published by The Conversation, due to the production and packaging cost of hard format music you would have to stream a track or album 27 times before the carbon impact was greater than that of purchasing a CD or Vinyl version.

Watching video accounts 60% of the world’s internet traffic and is estimated to generate 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – roughly 1% of all global emissions according to The Shift Project. Split three ways between adult material, video streaming on the likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix and the final third YouTube and social media clips.

Autoplay features on video and music streaming services exacerbate the consumption as users idly leave streams running as background or after leaving their devices.

Categories: Environment