What is a digital carbon footprint?

The digital transformation has brought many benefits that also have a positive impact on the fight against climate change and reduce CO₂ emissions. However, the production, use and data transfer of digital devices causes more CO₂ emissions than one might expect. These emissions are summarised under the terms “digital CO₂ footprint” or “digital carbon footprint”.

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According to one estimate, in 2019 around 4.1 billion people worldwide have access to the Internet [1]. Every single search query, every streamed video and every type of cloud computing, executed billions of times, is responsible for ever-increasing global demand for energy and thus also for increasing CO₂ emissions. The lion’s share of the digital footprint is caused by video streaming due to large data sizes of videos. By comparison, using a search engine or sending text-only emails has a negligible impact. In light of constant technological progress, increased efficiency, changing consumer habits and the substitution and summation effects, it is difficult to estimate exactly how large the global CO₂ emissions are. Various studies estimate them to be between 2.3 – 3.7 percent of global CO₂ emissions, which is equivalent to the emissions of the entire aviation industry [2]. On an individual level, it is possible to estimate more precisely how high the CO₂ emissions are and how they can be reduced by simple means.

 

Simple means to reduce emissions in everyday digital life:

  • Reduce streaming: Video streaming causes 75 percent of global data traffic [3]. Production of the device (smartphone, laptop, TV), internet network energy consumption, several involved data centres and servers/routers, energy consumption use of device during streaming itself. By comparison downloading is much less energy-intensive.
  • Play songs as audio files rather than streaming them as a video on YouTube or watch the video at a lower resolution [4].
  • Use devices longer: The average useful life of a smartphone in Switzerland is just two years, that of a television five years [5].
  • Dispose of old devices correctly.
  • Empty your e-mail box regularly to reduce data storage.
  • Store data locally, use the cloud as little as possible (applies to private individuals, for companies with server structure "on premise" rather vice versa)
  • Use WLAN networks instead of mobile networks.
  • Use a renewable energy mix (photovoltaic, hydropower, wind, biomass).

 

Sources:
[1] de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/805920/umfrage/anzahl-der-internetnutzer-weltweit/
[2] theshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Lean-ICT-Report_The-Shift-Project_2019.pdf    
[3] www.srf.ch/kultur/gesellschaft-religion/wochenende-gesellschaft/co2-fussabdruck-im-internet-surfe-ich-das-klima-kaputt?
[4] www.carbonbrief.org/factcheck-what-is-the-carbon-footprint-of-streaming-video-on-netflix
[5] www.lcaforum.ch/portals/0/df73/DF73-03_Keller.pdf

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