What the world is doing about digital emissions and why
As part of London Climate Action Week (LCAW), our very own Neil Clark brought together a panel of experts to discuss the digital industry, its impact on the environment, and what the world is doing about it. You can catch his talk on demand here. But if you’d prefer to read Neil’s insights, here’s the first instalment in a two-part series covering the main points he made.
The environmental impact of the digital industry is significant. So significant, in fact, that its global emissions are on a par with those from the aviation industry, eating up around 2% of the world’s emissions overall.
But unlike the aviation industry, where emissions have taken a dive alongside the steep drop in movement between countries, the digital industry’s carbon emissions are increasing year-on-year.
And yet, they’re simply not set in the public consciousness in the same way. Whilst you can see the trailing exhaust from a jet engine in the sky, you can’t see the energy a click on a webpage burns.
So, how does the digital industry cause these emissions?
Beyond the obvious production of hardware such as laptops, phones, and servers, there’s data. Everything you see when browsing a site, scrolling through an app or looking at an ad campaign is delivered via the transfer of data. And this data, more often than not, is stored in a hyperscale data centre.
These secure storage units, as well as the movements of data, are all powered by electricity. Despite great improvements in the decarbonisation of the electricity grid, the world is still a very long way from a fossil fuel-free world.
But, digital emissions are slowly entering societal consciousness.
Awareness around the impact of our digital economy on the environment is increasing. An Ericcsson report from January 2020 surveying 12,000 people across the world found 36 percent of them would like their devices to offer guidance on living more environmentally consciously.
Elon Musk and his more than 57 million Twitter following have helped with this. His tweets about Bitcoin this year have generated more awareness about the issue than ever before.
The Tesla CEO, whose company has $1.5 billion in Bitcoin investments, announced the electric car manufacturer would no longer be accepting payments in Bitcoin until a more sustainable way of mining the cryptocurrency became available. Cambridge university’s Bitcoin Electricity Consumption index suggests Bitcoin mining consumes 133.68 terawatt hours a year of electricity.
Musk has since been updating his following on the progress to strip this figure down:
“Spoke with North American Bitcoin miners. They committed to publish current & planned renewable usage & to ask miners WW to do so. Potentially promising.”
Spoke with North American Bitcoin miners. They committed to publish current & planned renewable usage & to ask miners WW to do so. Potentially promising.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 24, 2021
But Musk is by no means the only driver in the growing consumer awareness around our digital consumption. Big company announcements and political interest surrounding the topic play huge parts in prompting people to take up better, more sustainable habits.
Corporates are getting in on the action.
A number of Big Tech firms have attempted to lead the way on developing sustainable technology. These include:
Google, which is now using artificial intelligence (AI) to predict electricity grid intensity to move computing tasks to different locations in its quest to run on 100% renewable energy. The tech behemoth, whose parent Alphabet joined the $1 trillion club last year, has also published statistics about all of its data centres. The research measures the percentage of renewable energy the firm uses and the carbon intensity of its local electricity grids. This allows customers to choose where to run their software and apps, marking a kind of carbon aware computing fast gaining traction amongst other tech giants like Microsoft.
VMWare, a Californian cloud computing firm which turns over $11.8 billion annually, announced its net zero cloud initiative in May. The commitment marks the firm’s move to influence and take advantage of policy at an EU level, by calculating and promoting the positive impact of virtualisation in terms of reducing carbon emissions. This is similar to cloud hosting platform Gatsby, which is pushing its tech as a way to reduce emissions in the industry as well.
Netflix, a streaming service which reaches 200 million subscribers worldwide, has committed to reducing its internal emissions by 45% come 2030. Interestingly, just 5% of its footprint is generated by its streaming activities – a calculation aided by the DIMPACT project’s findings. That’s because Netflix’s footprint does not include internet transmission or electricity used by TVs, smartphones and other devices. This goes to show there is a significant hole which needs to be filled when it comes to whose responsibility it is to account for this electricity usage. Should it fall to the manufacturer? The streaming provider? The internet provider? Or even the national grid?
Political groups are speaking out on the issue.
The legislation governing our digital industry has been a point of contention for some years now, which has led to the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerbeg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and Apple’s Tim Cook being held accountable for concerns around privacy, competition, the responsibility for content, and the right to fix. Now, the impact of the digital industry on our planet is becoming a part of that conversation too.
The Greens coalition of Members of European Parliament (MEPs) are raising awareness of the issue. They stated in an open letter to the European Commission:
“Without clear, harmonised and quantifiable reporting standards, tech companies cannot be held accountable for their environmental impact. All information relating to the environmental impact of products, services and used infrastructures should be deemed essential data and thus freely available, accessible, standardised and interoperable.”
These policy recommendations already appear to be making an impact here in the UK. One example is the STAR (Sustainable Technology Advice and Reporting) group, which is currently rolling out the first stages of a pilot to incorporate sustainable IT into procurement processes at a government level.
Thanks to these drivers, the digital sustainability sector is growing.
There’s a whole host of organisations, initiatives, and projects which are keeping up the momentum around digital sustainability. Here’s a few you can check out:
- Ecoping, Greenspector and cloudcarbonfootprint.org are all explicitly selling business-to-business products and consulting for measuring and reducing the environmental impact of the digital industry.
- The Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA) has set out a roadmap to sustainability by 2030. It is assembling an impressive array of businesses and researchers throughout the entire digital value chain. These players will help define, understand and solve the problems.
- The Greensoftware Foundation was created to change the culture of building software, so sustainability becomes a core priority to software teams. Just as performance, security, cost and accessibility are important to these teams. The group has significant backing. Founding members include Microsoft, Accenture, ThoughtWorks and GitHub, as well Leaders For Climate Action, GreenWeb Foundation and WattTime.
- The Climate Action Tech community has been growing its members at a rapid rate. Last year alone, its membership tripled. Today, members stand at more than 4,000.
- Greendesign.io, sustainablewebdesign.org, environfriend.com and BIMA sustainability council’s green pages are all helping designers, developers and product owners in the digital industry to understand the impact they can have by offering hints, tips and advice on how to develop sustainably. Branch magazine also offers insights into practices around sustainable design and build.
- Unclouded is taking a slightly different approach. It has started by raising awareness around individual behaviour, and how this can play a part in reducing the data transfer these individuals are responsible for.
Read the second part of Neil’s talk here.