Digital technologies and environmental impact

| 16th July 2019
Doing your toxicology in a computer has three big advantages (for the chemical industry): it's quick, cheap, and can be manipulated to systematically understate the real health hazards. Photo: Alejandro Juárez via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Doing your toxicology in a computer has three big advantages (for the chemical industry): it's quick, cheap, and can be manipulated to systematically understate the real health hazards. Photo: Alejandro Juárez via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
We have to take the growing impact of the digital sector into account if we are serious about the energy transition.

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Many people will spend part of their free time online as summer gets into full swing, especially watching video.

Online video now accounts for a staggering 60 percent of global data flows. It is the main use of digital tools worldwide and therefore the principal factor of greenhouse gas emissions in the digital sector. 

The global energy consumption of digital media grows by 9 percent per year, according to The Shift Project, a French carbon transition think tank. Globally, video streaming emits as much CO2 as Spain (over 300 Mt per year), a new Shift Project report has found. Far from the dematerialised media that it might seem, online streaming has a significant impact on carbon emissions. 

Digital sobriety

The new report, “The Unsustainable Use of Online Video”, was published last week by The Shift Project.

The report quantifies the impact of online video on the environment, based on data from previous studies by Cisco and Sandvine. It also outlines options to reduce this impact.

The Shift Project has also developed tools to raise awareness and help people adopt better digital habits at the individual level.

The report underlines that the current evolution of the digital sector and of the weight of online videos are inconsistent with the Paris Agreement and the objective of reducing global emissions. It calls for “digital sobriety”, as well as a societal debate on the usefulness of some online content. 

According to The Shift Project, “addictive designs (autoplay, embedded videos, etc.) are incompatible with digital sobriety”, and “neither the self-regulation of broadcasting platforms nor the voluntary decisions of users will suffice”, so that regulation is needed.

Such regulation should happen both at national and international level - “an excellent subject for the EU”, say the authors - and it should be based upon precise procedures at the individual and collective levels.

Advertising

Matthieu Auzanneau, Executive Director, The Shift Project, said: “If we are to be serious about the energy transition, we have to take into account the growing impact of the digital sector. This analysis shows that it is possible” 

Advertising also has a huge part to play. Hugues Ferreboeuf, Project Manager at The Shift Project, said: "While our current consumption patterns are directly responsible for our inability to reduce our carbon footprint, we still tend to balk at the idea of changing them.

"However, when it comes to digital uses, this report shows that the majority of videos constituting 80 percent of Internet traffic are consumed as entertainment or advertising: a finding that, in the face of the climate emergency, should convince us that questioning our digital behaviours is not only desirable, but also feasible.”

As well as changes in individual behaviours, we need to look across the board at the ways in which corporations are locking viewers into modes of consumption that are bad for people and bad for our planet. 

Richard Hanna, developer of Carbonalyser, said: “As Internet users, we know little or nothing about our environmental impact. With the browser add-on Carbonalyser, one can measure this impact and appreciate the weight of video consumption.

"The equivalence between the CO2 emissions of Internet browsing and car travelling is unsettling : one often reaches 1km travelled after less than 15 minutes browsing.”

This Article

This article is based on a press release from The Shift Project, a carbon transition think tank. 

The report “Climate crisis: The unsustainable use of online video – A practical case study for digital sobriety” (2019) was led by Maxime Efoui-Hess, an engineer specialized in climate and computer modeling, who graduated from ISAE-SUPAÉRO, Université Paul Sabatier and the French Meteorology University. He is co-author of the report “Lean ICT – Towards a digital sobriety” (The Shift Project 2018).

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