What solutions are available for our digital footprint?

With a very material "cloud" starting to catch up with us, can individuals make an impact?

According to Dr Anders Andrae’s 2020 study “New Prespectives on Internet Electricity Use” on the global electric power use between 2020 and 2030 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure, in 2020 ICT stands for up to 7% of the total global electricity use.

Indeed, the environmental footprint of the digital sector goes far beyond what the eye can see. Unmonitored destruction of natural habitats involves resource depletion, various toxicity parameters caused by metal mining and irresponsible dumping of e-waste. Energy consumption figures related to the mass of computing instructions in data centers and its resulting greenhouse gas emissions and ozone depletion are enough to make your eyes water.

Dr Andrae underlines that, even taking into account energy-saving initiatives, most researchers agree that the data traffic - no matter how it is defined - will increase exponentially for several years as it has been doing the last decade.

“New Perspectives” outlines the proportionate consumption: production of ICT material (20% of ICTs electricity consumption), use stage power of data centers (15%, but set to increase dramatically), use stage power of Networks (15% of ICT), use stage power of consumer devices including modems (50% of ICT total power use but the current downward trend is expected to continue thanks to advanced power saving features).

This means that when you purchase a device, you already have a “footprint” resulting from the energy used and emissions created to produce your device, not to mention the water-polluting process of metal mining. When you turn it on, computing power is required not only for device and your modem, but to power data centers to provide you with data access, as well as network signal. When multiplied by billions, and taking into the increasing use of data heavy practices (bitcoin, AI, AR and VR), we can begin to understand why the energy consumption of digital is now equivalent to those of big country, and growing.

The adage “go green, leave it on the screen” mistakenly suggests that sending an email is a dematerialized and ecologically friendly process.

On 19 February 2020, the European Commission set a target for telecommunications networks and data-center carbon neutrality by 2030. In Europe and the US, corporate responsibility for compliance with the digital strategy will be a key element in the struggle to reduce the impact of the sector. Yet for a sector at everybody’s fingertips, what can we as individuals do to reduce the impact of our digital usages?

Sometimes the easiest things are the most effective. As well as deleting any old emails you don’t need, consider preventative action. Do you systematically ignore a series of newsletters every day? If you unsubscribe from them all, you can consider you are doing the planet (and your interior calm) a serious favor.

Studies show that video and live streaming is a noticeable driver for ICT electric power use. For 2020, it is estimated that one person watches streaming in HD for 2 hours/day in weekdays and 4 hours/day on weekends.

To provide these hours and deliver the stream, 285 kWh per year per person is required; 352 kWh in 2030 (due to expected higher definition). Far be it from us to deprive you of the joys of Netflix, but awareness of the environmental benefits of viewing in moderation is an important step to take. Also, while video-conferencing is a great travel-reducing technology, you can further contribute by switching off your video when you are not actively contributing to the discussion.

Yet where the individual can really make a difference (for those who work at a company) is through voicing your concerns to the social responsibility manager, or even just discussing with colleagues to get things started. As an employee, your sense of well-being will be enhanced by knowing that you work in a professional environment that cares about its environmental footprint and that, furthermore, you had something to do with their positive impact action by making your voice heard.

Even for smaller companies, there are important questions to be addressed. How does your company dispose of obsolete company devices – does it dump them in landfills, enter a trade-in program, or use specialist such as “Cedre” to extract and recover a maximum of components?

Does your employer always buy brand new, or does company policy include the purchase of reconditioned product, offered by refurbishment experts such as BackMarket ?

For medium to large companies, you might like to also enquire about its data center policy. As a general rule, private data centers tend to be under-managed, with implications of considerable potential improvement when properly managed. If the company keeps data in a private data center, does it have the possibility of hiring a specialist to offer solutions to optimizing its efficiency?

There is general consensus that while impact measurement frameworks and speculations need more analysis and to be put into a global perspective; however, the sector potentially presents the greatest environmental challenge in the coming decade. Whatever scientific divergence exists on the impact metrics, one thing is sure: collective action and earlier corporate awareness will be cornerstone to the ecological transition of this sector whose key asset – data – will continue to increase exponentially over the coming decade.

Source: New Perspectives on Internet Electricity Source, Dr Anders Andrae