What is a digital carbon footprint?
We tend to think of the online world as “invisible” and green by default. Without a doubt, being able to communicate digitally saves a lot of paper and unnecessary journeys. But every time we visit a website, send an email, or use social media, a small amount of carbon dioxide is being emitted.
We have learned to use terms like ‘wireless’ and ‘the cloud’ to make everyday technology seem like it is a weightless formation storing our data. But all our data is collected, processed, exchanged and stored in enormous data centres all around the world. These data centres need electricity 24/7 to power the servers and prevent them from overheating. Sadly, the majority of them are still powered by burning fossil fuels and thus contributing to the climate emergency. And it doesn’t stop there.
There are over 2 million cables in the ocean, connecting data centres on one continent to the other. That’s enough cables to go to the Moon and back 3 times! The problem is that the more greenhouse gas emissions we add to the atmosphere, the warmer and more chaotic the ocean will get, which on top of all the other impacts may put the undersea cables and the cloud in danger. (Source: Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything, Cloud episode on Netflix)
When we think of the destructive causes that contribute to climate change, sitting behind a desk sending emails all day probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But with the colossal number of data centres and the ever-increasing number of internet-connected devices, the digital world is now beginning to be harmful to the planet.
While one person’s digital carbon footprint may be quite small, the collective amount of the world’s digital usage is monstrous – and increasingly worrying.
Collectively, the digital world accounts for approximately 3% of the global greenhouse emissions. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the global aviation industry.
This number is expected to increase significantly in the forthcoming years as more and more people have access to the internet, the average number of internet-connected devices per person continues to rise, and the popularity of streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and Spotify continues to grow.
The good news is that technology (and ICT sectors) have always been the driver of innovation, so now is the time for collaboration to build a credible and standardised approach to gathering and calculating our impacts. Together, we can make the digital space greener by recognising digital sustainability as a key part of our business operations and, therefore, creating a better web for everyone.
Why should we measure digital carbon footprint?
Technology has an ever increasing role to play in our everyday lives and we shouldn’t ignore the environmental impact of the enormous amount of the data we need to process and store, or the manufacture, use and disposal of the technology we use in our homes and offices.
As Peter Drucker famously said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Having a clear understanding of our digital carbon footprint can help us avoid wasting energy and, therefore, wasting money as well.
Ultimately, including digital sustainability into your operations and strategies is an important step towards identifying the environmental impact of the different technologies you use and a long-term reduction of your business’s carbon footprint.