Guest Blog Post by Mike Gifford, founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc.
There has been a huge shift to using digital tools over the last month or so as people seek ways of continuing to work, study and interact with each other while staying at home to comply with physical distancing.
This has in many ways had advantages for the environment. People are commuting a lot less, many nearly empty buildings have turned down heating (or air conditioning). We are also consuming less stuff because we are actively being discouraged from leaving our homes.
But digital transformation does have an environmental cost. It takes a lot of energy to deliver all of those video conferences, stream all those movies, and engage in all of our favourite social media platforms. There are absolutely good reasons to do this, but we should also be aware of the costs of this consumption and do what we can to minimize it.
In this three-part blog series by Mike Gifford, founder and CEO of Open Concept, we will take a look at what the environmental impact of digital tools is and what steps we can take in our everyday lives to reduce it.
The Carbon Footprint of Digital Technology
Most of us do not realize it, but the internet consumes a lot of electricity through data centres, networks, computers, smartphones, TVs and a whole host of other devices. Some are drawing power all the time because there is no way to just activate them on use. Others are designed to draw a phantom load even when they are turned off.
Because electricity globally is still produced mainly using fossil fuels, this results in C02 emissions. According to a BBC report the entire information technology sector – from powering internet servers to charging smartphones – is already estimated to have the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry’s fuel emissions (before COVID-19).
In the same report data from a European Commission-funded project, Eureca, found that five billion downloads and streams clocked up by the song Despacito, released in 2017, consumed as much electricity as Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic put together in a single year.
The 2019 study by the Paris-based think tank called the Shift Project concluded that transmitting and viewing online video accounts for a much larger portion of our CO2 than most people think. They calculated that streaming online video is now generating nearly 1% of global C02 emissions.
Audio and Video Giants
Living without video seems near impossible today – whether it is jumping on a video-conference call with colleagues or friends, or streaming tv and movies for entertainment. So what steps are companies taking to try and green their operations?
In the USA you can see a list from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the Green Power Partnership Top 30 Tech & Telecom. Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Apple, and Samsung all do well. Unfortunately there isn’t anything comparable with CO2 consumption outside of the USA.
In it’s 2019 report on their environmental impact Netflix claimed that “100 percent of our estimated direct and indirect non-renewable power use was matched with renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets in 2019”. Netflix is just one of a growing number of video delivery services.
We often take for granted these streaming services. They have made it incredibly convenient to access their services for our entertainment. It isn’t that we shouldn’t be entertained, but we do have to think about the environmental consequences of doing so and support those services that are investing in sustainability.
Our Internet Service Providers
Another thing to keep in mind is the supply chain. Most Canadians get internet access through Bell, Rogers or Telus. But what is their environmental impact? In their 2018 CSR report Bell Canada (BCE) said it hoped to meet the Science Based Targets total by 2025. Rogers is hoping to reduce their CO2 emissions by 25% in the same time. Telus has made some aspirational claims caring about climate change, but is lacking a lot of detail about targets and achievements to date.
Many Canadian companies will benefit from low carbon investments made in the power grid, particularly in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. For example, one of Amazon’s five green data centers is in Montreal and has green energy thanks to Hydro Quebec.
Ultimately we want our data to jump through fewer data centers between our devices and the server that store them. Use of Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) are two ways that people are trying to do this. Canada is a huge country, and we don’t all live next to an internet hub. We need decision makers to be thinking about how to build a robust internet architecture that supports Canadians. Popular data can be cached closer to users if we design our systems right.