In this blog, we explore some of the less well-publicised impacts of our digital habits in both our personal and business lives.
We live in the digital age, there is absolutely no escaping it – almost every aspect of our lives is dominated by digital technology. Few of us, if any, will function day to day without our smartphones, laptops and of course web connectivity. Increasingly we’re also more reliant on cloud technology, AI-enabled platforms and services where, even in the home environment IoT technology is becoming increasingly prevalent. In our business lives, our technology reliance is, with very few exceptions, all-encompassing. Collectively we are a far cry away from “sustainable” – which whilst it’s perhaps unsurprising, is alarming given the vast amounts of emphasis that we put on sustainability.
Our digital consumption has a huge impact on our carbon footprint which is rarely seen through the same lens as more obvious sustainability areas like single-use plastics, food miles, air and road travel or reducing waste. In this blog, we explore some of the less well-publicised impacts of our digital habits in both our personal and business lives.
The digital landscape at micro (personal) and macro (societal) levels is fundamental to our everyday lives. We’ll all be familiar with stats that tell us we check our phones between 93 and 150 times a day but headline stats aside it’s clear that we are wedded (for better or worse) to our digital technology. Whilst some of us may be pining for “the good life” the vast majority of the global population are headed firmly towards an all-encompassing digital world. Trends including Virtual and Augmented Reality – or as Zuckerberg would call it “The Metaverse” - are very clearly emerging but the concepts of Advanced AI, Digital Twins or Remote Machines may be less obvious facets in how our digital consumption really impacts our carbon footprint.
Before we get into that, it’s worth noting the acceleration of these digital trends as a result of the pandemic. Currently, between 29.5% and 37.5% of the UK workforce work from home on a full or part-time basis, and by proxy we can assume that they are digitally enabled and connected remotely to a central hub in some way – either via collaboration tools or unified communications and of course with access to all the data, tools and software they’d “enjoy” from the office. This rapid, enforced, shift in behaviour has of course reduced one of the well-known contributors to our carbon footprint, travel. At peak in April 2020 road traffic was reduced by as much as 73% but alas as quickly as the traffic (and emissions) fell they were also quick to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Travel and transport are the UK’s largest contributors to GHG’s with the latest estimates suggesting that domestic traffic is producing 122 million MtCO2e (metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) annually. Representing 27% of the UK’s total GHG’s, there is absolutely no doubt that switching the daily commute for digital connection in a home-working environment should be a greener, more sustainable alternative. It’s one of the areas that we have at least some control over, do we drive, take a train, fly or cycle to work? At the very least we are cognizant of the impact our daily commutes have and many of us will be thinking of making the switch, if we’re driving, to electric vehicles – but we seldom give the same thought or consideration to how our digital lives impact our carbon footprint, do we?
At Gaia Edge we help the world’s most progressive companies to Define | Develop | Deliver pathways to net zero within their technology landscapes, helping them to assess over 140 different areas with their data center estates. Before you switch off, don’t worry, we won’t be diving into those here but instead taking some of the core principles of visibility into our personal and business lives to help you take your own actions.
At the fundamental level, we need to see our own digital footprint in the context of a wider technical infrastructure. Data Centers and the infrastructure delivering services directly to you – notwithstanding your device, needs significant power in both transmissions across networks and at data center level to power devices and cool them. Almost 50% of the electricity consumed by data centers is used in the cooling of the hardware needed to process our digital demands. It is estimated that the technology sector is currently responsible for 5-9% of all the world’s electricity use and is expected to rise by 28% by 2030.
We may not like to hear it but we, collectively, are in some part responsible for this use – our collective consumption of everything from email, video, social media as well as the rise of our smart homes and need for absolute immediacy in everything we do – directly contributes to the cumulative energy use and carbon emissions. As an individual then we may not be able to impact the development of sustainable data centers or drive innovation in Digital Twins, HPC or Sustainable Data Center technology but we can make small changes every day in our own behaviour.
The average web page produces 1.76 grams CO2 per page view.
This may seem like a tiny, tiny amount and you’d be right for thinking so – but let’s say in our 6.4 hours per day connected we look at 50 web pages per day 7 days per week, 52 weeks per year…
1.76g x 50 x 7 x 52 = 32032g CO2 or 32 kg CO2
That’s enough to drive an average of 80 miles in an average car, perhaps that’s your weekly commute or a weekend trip?
But if we multiply that by just the UK population of 68 million and suddenly our web browsing habits are the equivalent of 504, 294 barrels of oil or driving 547,418,729 miles.
According to US research, it is estimated that an hour’s video call produces between 150 and 1000 grams of CO2 – of course, these estimates vary based on device, network, resolution et cetera, but for the sake of clarity, we’re going to assume the lower figure of 150g CO2 per hour or the equivalent of driving 0.38 road miles.
So back to our digital habits – let’s assume that the average UK resident has 2 x 1 hour long video calls each week across both personal and business lives (anyone suffering video call fatigue we’re sorry for you!). We’ll also take the whole of the UK here rather than just the adult population as video calling is growing rapidly with younger and younger users.
Our calculations would look as follows:
150g x 2 Calls x 52 Weeks x 68 Million = 1060800 MTCO2e
In context that’s the same as running 192,687 homes for a whole year.
There is hope on this though – the same study showed that simply turning off your video reduced the energy use and therefore associated carbon emissions by up to 96% so next time you’re on a call for an hour thinking about whether you need a full video for the whole call? The simple act of cutting out one call a week could reduce our carbon by half.
Finally, we’re taking a look at the old favourite – emails. Where would we be without them? The email has become the primary communication method for many of us but as you’d expect email is not without its own little secret either.
A regular email is widely believed to equate to around 4g of CO2, the basis for this was calculated some time ago by Mike Berners-Lee and whilst widely used doesn’t account for the developments in our devices or advances in technology. If we take Berners-Lee’s calculation in earnest and look at the average volume of 40 emails sent per day it’s surprising to see just how much impact our email activity is having on our carbon footprint.
4g x 40 emails per day x 365 = 58.4 kgCO2
On an individual level that’s enough to drive 147 miles but if we multiply this by just the employed population of the UK, 32.5 million, we have a very, very different story at 1,898,000 MtCO2e which is the equivalent of the same emissions from 4.39 million barrels of oil.
Before we switch off all of our devices and head back to simpler times there is hope and there are simple actions that we can all take to reduce and limit the impact of our own digital habits.
Remember that by our estimates, all the emails you send in a year is still only the equivalent of driving 147 miles so still a huge saving if you’re switching from a daily commute. Simply turning off video or switching to the less high definition will help you reduce your video carbon footprint by up to 86% and think of the miles you’re saving by not heading into the office every single day.
The Carbon Independent estimate that the average carbon footprint per person in the UK is around 10 tonnes per year, roughly double the rest of the world average. Known as “consumption emissions” they exclude aviation and shipping but include imports/exports. Even using the Government’s quoted figure of 6 tonnes per person (excluding imports/exports) we in the UK are still responsible for between 20% and 100% more emissions than the rest of the world.
Whilst our digital behaviours are only part of this story, we’re only just scratching the surface with email, video and browsing. Gaming, streaming, virtual reality, and many more are becoming norms in our digital behaviour – they are a new wave of consumption and need a new lens to see the patterns and impact of our actions in much the same way as we would look at single-use plastics, food miles or any other emission producing behaviour.
Ultimately, many if not all of the digital services we rely on in our personal and business lives are delivered via Data Centers, cloud, edge, on-premise or hosted. It’s in our data centers that we have a huge opportunity to address and genuinely redress our organisational carbon footprint. On the path to Net Zero, we must ask more of our service providers and technology sources than just delivering more, faster. If we are to preserve the digital way of life with all the advancements that it brings and all the connectivity we enjoy, we must ask not just for more, but for better, greener and more sustainability and we must ask now.
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