sustainability

The Carbon Footprint of the Digital World

icon ecological footprint

In this blog two thoughts on how we as individuals can reduce our digital carbon footprint. Maybe this can be used to challenge ourselves, students and colleagues for more ideas. We start with a few facts.

Data centers are responsible for as much CO2 emission as all air traffic (2019). The communications industry is on track to generate more carbon emissions than the automotive, aviation and energy sector together. Data use doubles every four years (Computerworld  Aug. 9, 2019).

The energy consumption of data centers is estimated to be 3.2 % of the total worldwide carbon emissions by 2025 and responsible for a fifth of global electricity consumption. By 2040, storing digital data is set to create 14 % of the world’s emissions. Electricity worldwide is mostly generated using fossil fuels. Some claim that renewable energy could be a solution, but this is a sham. Renewable energy to fuel these data centers is energy that cannot be used for other sectors. So-called renewable energy based on pulp from production forests is only CO2 neutral when looking at a period of 80 years, and that is not the timeline we can afford us now. Pulp plantations often replaced rich ecosystems. Renewable energy such as biofuel often displaces crop production farther into threatened forests, savannahs and peatland. Only a very small portion of biofuel comes from waste fats from the food industry (greenpeace.org).

40% of the energy use in data centers is used for cooling. The industry itself could safe on this part of the energy consumption by moving data centers to cold places, such as Siberia. But what can we do?

We could delete old files that are stored in the cloud, such as e-mail messages, photo’s, videos etc. We and employers should consider to stay away from cloud services. Maybe not so easy, but the easiest solution is not always the best for our planet.   

If all US citizens using email deleted 500 e-mail messages which reside in Spam box, Trash bin, or Unread messages, this would save energy use amounting to 33.000 million kilowatt-hours. This equals 3.700 million liter gasoline.

Picture of email and Trash bin. Arrow to indicate that email should be moved to the Trash bin.
Delete as many emails as possible. Empty your Trash bin.

If everyone around the world deleted 10 emails (spam or not spam), this would result in deleting 1,725,00 GB, because storing 1GB emails (or 1000 emails) takes 32 kWh. Consequently, this would save 55.2 million kWh (Good Planet & RESET).  

So imagine how much energy would be saved if everyone deleted 10 emails every day?

The map above shows that China is the country with by far most CO2 emission (Our World in Data). So, what can we do about this? One of the reasons is that energy production in China is still mostly relying on burning coal. Another reason is that China produces many products for the rest of the world. How many of these products (plastic toys, cheap clothes, gadgets …) do we really need? And which products can be produced elsewhere with less pollution, less CO2 emission, less transport costs, and under better worker conditions?