Focus on the environmental impact of 5 leading digital sectors

8 Jun


Written by

Samantha Mur




Focus on the environmental impact of 5 leading digital sectors
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Which internet sectors and activities internet have the greatest impact? With digital technologies becoming an increasingly integral part of our daily lives and environmental concerns on the rise, the question is worth asking. How do these new technologies affect natural resources, ecosystems and the climate in concrete terms? We have chosen to take a closer look at the ecological footprint of five of the fastest-growing areas of digital activity.


Today, digital consumption is rising sharply on a global scale, and this inevitably has an ecological cost. The environmental impact of digital technology is due not only to the manufacture of materials and computer components, but also tot he energy required to operate digital equipment. Of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by digital technology worldwide, 37% are due to the manufacturing of digital devices (extraction of resources, assembly, transport and distribution); 38% to the use of digital devices; and 25% to network infrastructures and data centres (The Shift Project).


The operation of a web platform or service requires, among other things, the transfer and storage of data, the manufacture and laying of cables to connect data centres around the world, the consumption of electricity to produce and power digital equipment, and so on. It's easy to see that digital technology, which is intended to be dematerialised, depends on the production of materials and puts pressure on the environment and living things.


So, given this general observation, how can we understand the impact of digital technology, more specifically by sector of activity? Let's try to understand the weight of these 5 sectors on the environment.


1.  Video streaming


Streaming is a technology for consuming audiovisual content online, mainly in video but also audio formats.


The use of streaming has exploded in the space of ten years, so much so that it now occupies a major place in the habits of Internet users worldwide. According to the Digital 2022: Global Overview Report published by We Are Social and Hootsuite in January 2022, 51.5% of Internet users aged between 16 and 64worldwide used the Internet to watch videos at the end of 2021. This makes it the 4th most common reason for using the internet worldwide, behind general information search, interpersonal communication and news gathering (Source: Datareportal).


Another striking figure is that 91.9% of internet users aged between 16 and 64consulted at least one video per week in the third quarter of 2021, taking into account all types of content:

© Digital 2022: Global Overview Report, We AreSocial x Hootsuite


 What exactly are they used for?


Video streaming can be broken down as follows:


·      Linear audiovisual consumption via the internet,

·      Subscription-based video-on-demand(VOD) services (such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.),

·      Replay,

·      Social networking,

·      Video sharing via instant messaging,

·      Video format advertising, etc.


The consumption of online video is commonplace and seemingly harmless, but it is not harmless for the environment: it leads to the exploitation of natural resources, the pollution of ecosystems and the consumption of large quantities of energy.


In fact, the digital industry in general needs digital equipment to function, from computers to smartphones, as well as cables, antennae and so on. Not to mention the need to extract, transport and transform the gigantic quantities of metals and rare materials required to manufacture all this infrastructure, whichrequires energy. And finally, electricity, data centres and the network system that produce the connections and operate uninterrupted 24 hours a day. So, it'sclear that the use of online video contributes to the sector's environmental impact.


In terms ofInternet bandwidth consumption, video streaming alone accounts for 60% of global Internet data flows, due to the weight of video files (source:Greenpeace). This has a significant impact on the environment, because every online video, whether hosted on YouTube or on a VOD platform, requires data tobe stored in data centres.

A number of studies have looked at the ecological cost of video streaming, but with divergent results:


- In 2019, the French think-tank The Shift Project, in its report Climat: l'insoutenable usage de la vidéo en ligne (Climate: the unsustainable use of online video),estimated that more than 300 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent were generated in2018 by online video, through: VOD services (a third of these emissions),pornographic sites, video distribution platforms such as YouTube or Dailymotion, videos hosted on social media, etc. On an hourly basis, this figure is equivalent to 3.2 kg of eqCO2 (or CO2e) per hour. After revising its estimates downwards in June 2020 following errors in calculation, the organisation estimates average pollution from streaming at 400g of CO2e per hour.


- In 2020, digital analyst George Kamiya published a study on the IEA (InternationalEnergy Agency) website, first published in the journal Carbon Brief. Theupdated IEA study suggests that one hour of video streaming would be responsible for an average of 36g of CO2e worldwide.


- In 2020, Netflix's Director of Development, Emma Stewart, estimated that watching an hour of streaming video emits an average of 100g of CO2e.


What we can conclude from this is that the impact of video streaming is complex to measure and can vary greatly depending on a number of factors:


- The video terminal used: smartphones, laptops and televisions do not consume the same amount of energy. According to Carbon Brief, a 50-inch LED TV screen consumes 100 times more energy than a smartphone and 5 times more than a laptop. However, a smartphone using 4G instead of Wi-Fi consumes up to 3 times more energy than a television.


- The quality of the video chosen: the higher the resolution of the video watched, the greater the amount of data stored, and therefore the greater the amount ofenergy required. For example, ultra-HD will require 10 times more data than HD(source: Courrier International)


- The energy mix that powers the infrastructures: the carbon footprint of video streaming is increased by the significant use of fossil fuels (gas and coal) to run data centres, depending on their geographical location. In terms of energy consumption during viewing, this also has an impact: in Australia, where energy is still highly carbon-intensive, half an hour of Netflix would be equivalent to0.027 kg of CO2e emitted, compared with 0.009 kg in the UK and 0.002 kg inFrance, whose energy, partly derived from nuclear power, is more carbon-free.Worldwide, the IEA estimates that half an hour of Netflix corresponds to the emission of 0.018 kg of CO2e, or 100 m travelled in a combustion engine car(source: Les Numériques).


2.  Social networks

 Social networks are now an integral part of our daily connected lives, and their use is growing all the time.


In January2023, there were almost 5.16 billion internet users in the world, representing 64.4% of the global population. Of these, 4.76 billion were active users ofsocial media (Source: statista).


According to the Digital 2022: Global Overview Report published by We Are Social and Hootsuite in January 2022, internet users worldwide spend an average of 6 hours 58 minutes on the internet, and 2 hours 27 minutes on social networks (source: Datareportal), the most popular of which are Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp:


© Digital 2022: Global Overview Report, We AreSocial x Hootsuite

 Along with video streaming, social networks are among the most consumed digital data in the world. But as their use continues to grow, so does their environmental impact. While the production of digital devices remains the main source of CO2e emissions, the use of social media is also a source of digital pollution.


According to a study conducted by Greenspector in 2021, posting and consuming content on mobile phones would have a carbon impact of:


165.6g of CO2e per user per day (equivalent to driving 1.4km in a light vehicle)

60 kg of CO2e per user per year (equivalent to 535 km travelled in a light vehicle)


However, not all mobile applications exert the same pressure on the environment. In its study, Greenspector compared the carbon impact of the news feeds of the 10 most popular social networking applications, using an S7 (Android 8) smartphone:


© Greenspector


 According to a Greenpeace report, some of the giants of the social platforms are making a commitment and making the transition to using more green energy and reducing their impact on the environment, as in the case of YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.


3. Online video games

 The video games industry has begun to move towards cloud gaming, an online gaming service that no longer requires a console or disc. All gamers need is a good Internet connection.


With fewer game consoles, PCs and discs to play on, all of which require raw materials, energy and transport, the environmental impact seems at first sight to be reduced. However, as we have seen with video streaming, dematerialisation does not automatically reduce CO2 emissions. The impact of online video games can be considered from several angles:


- Massive consumption of data via streaming: on-demand computing resources are managed by data centres, rather than by a console. These infrastructures consume a lot of energy, and the energy that powers them is still largely of carbon-based origin worldwide. With demand for data processing rising sharply, the massive development of cloud gaming could increase its environmental impact.


- Screen size and performance: as gaming experiences become more sophisticated, screens are becoming larger and more powerful. This means greater energy consumption and a greater impact on the environment. According to a report by ADEME and Arcep, terminals, and in particular screens, are responsible for between 64% and 92%of the environmental footprint of digital technology in France, depending on the criteria studied (source: L'info durable).


- The rebound effect: it may be reassuring to note that the energy efficiency of data centres is improving and reducing their ecological footprint. However, with access to dematerialised games becoming easier and more efficient, the number of players could take off. However, this trend towards democratisation could lead to much higher consumption and cancel out the energy savings made.


4. Cryptocurrencies

 Nearly 10.2% of Internet users worldwide owned some form of cryptocurrency in the 3rd quarter of 2021 (source: Digital 2022: Global Overview Report).


The environmental impact of these virtual currencies is increasingly under the spotlight. Bitcoin is the most controversial of the cryptocurrencies, havingpioneered the sector in 2009 and led to the creation of thousands of others.


According to a study published in September 2022 in the scientific journal ScientificReports, Bitcoin is considered to be a major contributor to climate change, ona par with some of the most environmentally damaging industries. This is because Bitcoin is a virtual, decentralised currency (not controlled by a central bank), managed by a network of computers located around the world, continuously and simultaneously performing a complex calculation.


Bitcoin's impact can be explained by the following main factors:


- A virtual currency that consumes a lot of energy: according to Selectra's analysis (May2022), Bitcoin's energy consumption in one year was equivalent to 112 TWH (terawatt hours), or more than the annual consumption of the Netherlands! If Bitcoin were a country, its energy consumption would rank 31ᵉ worldwide (out of230) according to data provided by the EIA.


- With an increasing rate, global energy consumption to produce Bitcoins will soon use as much energy as the world's data centres combined (source: Selectra).


- Mining, aCO2-emitting activity: Bitcoin mining was responsible for releasing 41 mega tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2021, or 0.08% of global emissions(source: Greenly). While this may seem low compared with other sectors, the craze surrounding cryptocurrencies may lead us to fear that its impact will accelerate. On a smaller scale, a Selectra study estimates that a singleBitcoin generates 168.9 tonnes of CO2, roughly the equivalent of 169 return flights between Paris and New York for one person!


- By-products of Bitcoin mining: another source of pollution generated by this cryptocurrency is the need to renew digital equipment. Why is this? To ensure maximum profitability and manage ever-increasing computing power, mining farms equip themselves with the most cutting-edge computer components. With very intensive and uninterrupted use, the frequency of their replacement is rapid, which is problematic in terms of the management of electronic waste, which is highly polluting and still little recycled to date (source: Selectra).


5. Online advertising

 Advertising campaigns distributed via digital channels are also a source of greenhouse gas emissions. What are the sources of emissions linked to the creation of an online campaign?


According to a study carried out by fifty-five on the carbon footprint of digital advertising campaigns, several aspects can be considered:


- Production: the advertising creation phase can generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, particularly when it involves the movement of people and equipment. The impact depends on the means of transport used, the distance travelled and the type of editing (3D can add to the impact);


- Broadcasting: when it comes to broadcasting a campaign, it's hardly surprising that video has the greatest impact. This is because it generates a greater volume of data flow than an image or text, and requires more energy from data centre servers, networks and user devices. It will depend on the weight of the video and the network used by the user, between Wi-Fi and the mobile network.


- Targeting: targeting is important from an economic point of view and in terms of the quality of the user experience, and it helps to limit the carbon footprint of a campaign. With little or no targeting, a mass campaign will multiply unnecessary impressions and views. What's more, millions of unnecessary server calls will be generated via programmatic networks, because the bid placed is too low to win the bid.


As an object of study, fifty-five uses the example of a fictitious advertising campaign, limited to digital distribution channels, for which it draws up a carbon balance sheet:


©fifty-five the data company

In this example, we can see that the production of the creative and the distribution of the campaign generate almost the same volume of CO2.


In conclusion: ways of limiting the environmental impact of digital technology


Whatever the field of activity, it is now necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption in order to create a more sustainable future. For companies, this can mean:


- Implementing a responsible digital strategy

- Disseminating best practice in the use of low-energy, and therefore ecologically virtuous, digital technologies

- Choosing tools, data centres and networks that consume less energy, etc.


In France, for example, this approach has been encouraged within organisations and local authorities since 1st  January2022 by the Loi de la Réduction de l'Empreinte Environnementale du Numérique (REEN) of 15 November 2021, which aims to raise awareness of the impacts of digital technology and encourage digital sobriety.


For marketing departments in particular, here are a few ways in which they can reduce the GHG emissions of their campaigns and move towards a more sustainable marketing strategy:


- Prioritise your choice of marketing channels, depending on which are most relevant to your target audience, and which are least environmentally damaging (if necessary, assess the impact of the services provided)

- Opt for editorial restraint: create content with greater impact and relevance over the long term ("evergreen"), recycle content, post with controlled regularity to avoid info obesity and wasted resources;

- Think about the uses of video: is it necessary in each of your communications? Can it be replaced by an image or shortened? Apply simple, effective best practices to reduce the impact of visual content before broadcasting it, such as reducing the weight of videos or optimising the video format to suit the device used(adaptive streaming);

- Optimising the lifecycle of marketing content, by focusing on the production and use of digital data and the energy consumed at each stage of the cycle

Invest in the right marketing tools: the functionalities of certain applications can be grouped together or centralised in a single solution, to limit the number of tools used.


For example, a Digital Asset Management (DAM) platform enables you to manage, store, organise, distribute and archive all your multimedia files.

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