The digital ecosystem that’s part of our daily lives has significantly expanded over the past decades to now include many of our most common activities: watching movies on video streaming platforms instead of Blu-rays and DVDs, managing documents in the cloud instead of file cabinets, videoconferencing instead of meeting in conference rooms, and switching lights on with networked sensors instead of a mechanical switch.
In parallel, and beyond our sight, the power and ubiquity of back-end computing, telecommunication, the Internet of Things, machine learning, data analytics and cloud storage has grown exponentially.
The scale and pace of this digitization fuels high concerns about its environmental impact. Hardware and infrastructure require resource extraction, manufacturing, and construction that impact the climate and ecosystems. Powering digital devices and infrastructure requires electricity—with hyper scale data centers requiring tens of megawatts of electricity, as well as water and refrigerants for cooling. And, at a time when a sharp decline in carbon emissions is required in this decade to align with a 1.5C trajectory, data transmission and usage has been undergoing an exponential rise.
Yet confusingly, digitization is also pitched as a decarbonization lever. It sometimes makes intuitive sense, for example, that videoconferencing has a net positive impact relative to driving to meet in person. But, the variety of cases to consider and the complexity of the digital sector makes the net carbon impact of shifting from analog to digital unclear to most. The good news is that there is an accessible, short, and systematic way to assess and manage the net carbon impact of digital for both service providers and their users.
The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector is often assessed in isolation. A first step to clarify digital’s net impact is to reframe the discussion around activities. Thinking in terms of activities enables us to assess whether digitizing an analog activity today is a step in the right direction for the climate. Today’s common digitized activities generally have a lower carbon impact relative to their non-digital counterparts. Yes, we are streaming a video that’s stored on a server in the cloud, but we didn’t have to manufacture a Blu-ray or DVD and use fossil fuels to ship it around the world. Yes, we are heating our space with a new smart thermostat that has its own embodied and operational emissions, but we are avoiding a lot more emissions from the saved heating and cooling energy over the device’s lifetime.
Embodied emissions are embedded in the goods being consumed, e.g. the manufacturing emissions of a smartphone. Operational emissions occur during the use phase, e.g. the electricity to charge the smartphone.
As end users, it’s often unclear to us what our digital footprint is when using internet networks or cloud storage. To simplify, there are three main steps a digital service goes through to reach the user:
Remember the 1-10-100W rule of thumb: our individual use of external infrastructures such as data centers and telecommunication networks is likely attributed 1-10W of energy consumption, a small user device like a smartphone or tablet likely uses 1-10W, whereas a large user device such as a computer, TV or peripheral device likely uses 10-100W.
In terms of carbon, given that the world average for our electricity is about 0.5 grams of CO2 equivalent (gCO2e) per Watt-hour, the 1-10-100W rule of thumb converts to 0.5-5-50 gCO2e per hour of usage. This can vary greatly based on region, however. In Quebec, for instance, they generated about 1.5 gCO2/kWh in 2020, while New York City is around 290 gCO2/kWh and Detroit 520 gCO2e/kWh.
These general rules can give first answers on the carbon impact of digital activities while the industry becomes more transparent. Over the past several years, there has been pressure put on data centers to improve carbon reporting. As a result, the public cloud market leaders Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have all released customer-facing dashboards to track the energy and carbon footprint of their cloud usage for Scope 3 reporting. This shows how customers, public authorities, the media, and employees are rightfully wanting more transparency around the carbon and energy impact of digital activities—fueled especially by the concerning rise of data usage.
Scope 3 is defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP) as all indirect emissions (upstream and downstream) resulting from value chain activities except from the generation of purchased heat or acquired electricity, steam, heating, or cooling consumed by the reporting company.
Regardless of the industry, understanding the carbon implications of an organization’s digital use is likely to become the norm. Conducting lifecycle assessments, as well as gathering and reporting energy and carbon analytics, can be a sophisticated task but will be the responsibility of every organization. And providing clarity around the net carbon impact of digitized products and services will go hand-in-hand with an overall decarbonization strategy.
Embracing digital options can be a solution to climate change, but this is just the first step. Of course, this doesn’t absolve users or providers from further efforts to decarbonize an activity, otherwise, we could risk a rebound effect. As a second step, we should aim to be resource-efficient and push for the decarbonization of digital, maintaining a sustainable mindset that will keep this activity within the carbon budget of a 1.5C trajectory.
We need to have some understanding of resource use, as well as the implications of the companies we work for and with, to operate within the constraints of the planet's boundaries with all other activities and sectors. Companies need to increase their capacity for measuring and reporting their energy use and emissions, expand awareness for their stakeholders (employees, customers, etc.), and establish behavioral best practices.
While it is hard for us to fully wrap our heads around the level of data processing, storage, analytics, and more that’s going on in the background with each of our daily digital interactions, being aware is a positive first step. Here are some general rules to use when assessing the carbon implications of our digital activity:
In addition to being aware and following the suggested general rules, there are behaviors in our personal and professional digital lives that we can have top of mind when trying to make environmentally conscientious decisions.
Using this simple approach — thinking in terms of activities to determine if a digitized activity has a lower carbon impact today relative to the nondigital baseline, then maintaining a sustainable mindset while using or providing digital services to keep decarbonizing that activity — is applicable to most of our digital footprint. Adopting it for each key activity and service will aggregate to what we all seek: the judicious use of resources to keep our individual and organizational footprints – digital and non-digital – within the carbon budget of a 1.5C trajectory.
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