What is the environmental impact of digital technology?

26 Jan


Written by

Louise McNutt




What is the environmental impact of digital technology?
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Digital technology is not as virtual as you think! Its ecological footprint is all too real. Are the environmental challenges of digital technology still abstract for you? Here we bring you up to speed, to better understand the issues and see what is within our grasp to reduce our impact now!

If digital technology were a country, it would have 2 to 3 times the ecological footprint of France.
[Source: greenit.fr]

The numbers speak for themselves.

Streaming videos, storing documents in the Cloud, sending emails… all these activities have become commonplace in our personal and professional lives. It’s hard to imagine the extent of the environmental impact of our digital tools. And yet , digital technology is not as abstract as you might think!

What obscure aspects of digital technology are still not widely known? Where does its ecological footprint come from and which digital interactions have the greatest impact?

Here is an overview of the biggest environmental issues of digital technology, to give you some guidance and comparisons. Expert sources mentioned throughout the article will help you delve deeper into the topics that interest you.

n practical terms, we will start by looking at digital sobriety, addressing in the first place ways to reduce the carbon footprint of our digital habits.

Why are we talking about the impact of digital technology?

A vast resource

Interwoven into numerous aspects of our lives, digital technology is a limitless tool for progress, providing us with countless possibilities: communicating, knowledge transfer, understanding scientific phenomena, buying, producing, facilitating all kinds of money flows and services, entertainment and virtual workspaces etc.

Having become indispensable, this precious resource is not as insignificant or inconsequential as we think it is. We suspect that there is another reality behind our screens… but what is it?

While we often associate digital technology with a large virtual system, we tend to forget its physicality, which is very real. So what are the negative impacts of digital life?

According to the study by Frédéric Bordage, in his work Towards digital sobriety, for the “digital galaxy” to function it consists of:

  • Servers (75 million),
  • User terminals (34 billion),
  • Communication networks (1.5 billion).

And the digital universe is growing exponentially! Experts predict that it will grow 5 times between 2010 and 2025. This colossal amount of equipment requires more and more raw materials, resources and energy to keep expanding. This now poses a major ecological problem.

A real environmental cost

Despite its ethereal language (digitization, Cloud, virtual reality etc.), digital technology has physical implications so it makes sense that there are consequences for the planet and human beings.

To measure the environmental impact of digital technology, we need to consider all the effects of a digital product life cycle: design, extraction and processing of raw materials, manufacture of components, assembly, transport, energy consumption during its use and finally recycling.

This ecological impact, also known as digital pollution, includes the following:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Overuse of water resources
  • Contamination of natural environments
  • Damage to biodiversity
  • E-waste generation etc.

👉 Digital technology is responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Digital technology’s share of global GHG emissions is rising sharply and could double by 2025 to reach 8% according to the Shift Project’s report on the environmental impact of digital technology and 5G rollout.

It has become more crucial than ever for all digital players and their users to address this issue and explore solutions to reduce their digital footprint.

This involves moving towards more restraint in our use of digital technology: which is what digital sobriety is all about. To bring you up to speed, we wanted to look at the bigger picture to better understand the impact of our digital usage and consumption, as well as looking at ways to start taking action.

Which indicators?

Extensive studies and research have been carried out in this field, which we used as the basis for this article. However, while these figures can help grasp the global nature of the problem and take ownership of the key issues, it’s all relative and they need to be qualified.

Indeed, it’s hard to get data to quantify the number of devices in operation, for example. The estimates used below are from the Greenit.fr Environmental Footprint of the Digital World report. They are based on a life cycle inventory analysis using sales and lifespan figures and data collection from public and private companies.

The 3 types of digital pollution

To understand the different sources of digital pollution in more detail, we have used the different categories of digital equipment as listed by Greenit.fr:

1. The environmental impact of digital technology: the high carbon footprint of terminals

Ingeniously designed, lightweight, practical and high-performance objects… which actually hide a totally different reality. Before landing in our pockets or on our desks, our smartphones, laptops and all other types of digital terminals have traveled thousands of miles!

They started in mines (extraction of rare earth elements for their components), then were assembled in another corner of the planet and finally transported and distributed to their final point of sale. All of this requires a significant amount of materials and fossil fuels.

Here are some numbers for smartphones [according to ADEME]:

  • Making a smartphone requires up to 70 different materials and 50 different metals, including precious metals such as gold and silver and rare special metals such as tantalum.
  • Approximately 20 are currently recyclable.
  • Three quarters of the environmental impact of smartphones is related to their manufacture.
  • 62% of smartphones are replaced even though they’re still working!

A few numbers for laptops:

Depending on the model, manufacturing and transporting a laptop emits between 160 and 480 kg of CO2, not including its use.

Making a laptop requires nearly 600kg of materials.

According to ADEME, digital equipment accounts for 47% of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions and its manufacturing process has the most impact, more than its use.

A sector that makes everything digital, but whose material and energy requirements are gigantic!

2. The environmental impact of digital technology: undersea network infrastructure

No, the internet does not float in the air! We can only connect to the internet thanks to a vast network of undersea cables. This invisible network buried in the depths of the oceans and seas of the world represents millions of kilometers (the longest cable spans nearly 20,000km!).

99% of communications and data exchanges between continents pass through these undersea cables (and only 1% by satellite), which cover very long distances. Let’s look at the example of an email: this email travels on average 15,000 km from the place where it was sent to the data center hosting its mailbox!

💡 To visualize and understand the entire network infrastructure used to transport all the data on the internet, the submarinecablemap.com site is a captivating resource.

What with its manufacture, transport, installation and maintenance, all this equipment is bound to have an environmental impact. Cables are laid at the bottom of the ocean by cable-laying ships, which use large amounts of energy.

According to ADEME, all these cables in the network infrastructures represent 28% of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by our use of digital technology.

3. The environmental impact of digital technology: gigantic energy-intensive data centers

Data centers are huge buildings, such as hangars, which are data processing and storage centers located all over the world. More specifically, they house microcomputers and hard drives in large drawer cabinets that store very large volumes of data: emails, photos, videos, games and business data etc. In the event of hardware failure, the information is copied on several hard drives, to ensure it is backed up.

These facilities occupy very large surface areas (the largest data center in the world, in China, has a surface area of 1 million square meters!) and require considerable resources for their construction and operation, electricity and cooling systems.

Highly energy-intensive, a 10,000 sqm data center consumes on average the equivalent of a city of 50,000 inhabitants. 40% of this energy consumption is used just to cool them.

Often singled out as the main culprits responsible for the impact of digital technology, data centers ultimately account for only 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from digital technology (according to ADEME again).

The digital carbon footprint – France and worldwide

The digital environmental footprint -worldwide
In 2019, worldwide, digital technology represented:

  • 34 billion in equipment
  • 223 million tonnes of equipment.

The global digital footprint compared to the global human footprint (terminal manufacturing phase – manufacturing phase of all equipment) is as follows :

  • 4.2% primary energy consumption or 6,800 TWh (30 % – 35%)
  • 3.8% greenhouse gases, or 1,400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (39% – 44%).

[Source:What is the environmental footprint of the digital world?, GreenIT.fr]

The digital environmental footprint -France

In 2020, in France, digital technology represented:

  • 631 million pieces of equipment used by 58 million people
  • 7 million tonnes of material (excluding the physical network core).

☝️ In France, energy consumption during the use phase (from equipment delivery to its disposal) is less carbon-intensive than in the rest of the world. Hence the differences in impacts between the manufacturing and use phases.

In 2020, the French digital footprint compared to France’s total carbon footprint (terminal manufacturing phase – manufacturing phase of all equipment) was as follows :

  • 6.2% primary energy consumption or 180 TWh of primary energy (37 % -64%),
  • 3.2% global warming or 24 million tonnes of CO2e (76% -86%).

[Source: What is the environmental footprint of digital technology in France?, GreenIT.fr]

Focus on: the impact of video streaming on environmental balance

Digital usage is soaring and dominated by online videos.

According to a study conducted by Sandvine, video streaming accounted for nearly 54% of global internet traffic on electronic communications networks in 2021.

Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime dominate this market, accounting for more than half of video streaming traffic worldwide (source: Statista).

In addition, there is a significant share (2.7%) of global traffic related to PlayStation downloads: in terms of data transfer, downloading 100GB of data is equivalent to watching 14 hours of 4K video.

Netflix traffic consommation
© Variety

As Arcep points out in its report on the state of the internet in France, “Video content is also found in other categories in this ranking, including social media which accounts for 12.69% of global traffic, online gaming (5.67%) or messaging solutions: WhatsApp, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Messenger etc. (5.35%)”.

Arcep mentions different sources of video consumption: “live/linear viewing online, replay and catch-up services, subscription video on demand services, social media, video chats on instant messaging, widespread use of video advertising etc.” »

In 2022, the amount of data shared on the internet worldwide was largely dominated by video streaming:

Video streaming
© Nielsen.com

And in terms of impact? Video consumes a lot of energy, because the size of the files watched contains much more digital data than a photo: this requires more energy to store them on servers. Not to mention that most online videos are now high-definition which makes them even bigger.

A few numbers:

  • 80% of internet bandwidth is consumed by online video.
  • Video streaming consumption worldwide emits 300 million tonnes of CO₂ worldwide every year. This is equivalent to the digital pollution of a country like Spain or even 1% of global emissions.
  • VOD (Video on demand) services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime etc. emit as much greenhouse gas as Chile.

All this data produced by video streaming consumes large amounts of electricity, which comes largely from fossil fuels (85% of the global energy mix in 2018, according to a BP study).

After making these initial observations, we will explore the best practices to put in place to reduce the impact of online video, from their storage to their use in a forthcoming article.

Towards digital sobriety

At Wedia, we are committed to starting discussions about digital sobriety, and making our own contribution by reducing the digital impact of our work and those of our clients.

This is why, as digital players, we advocate restraint and conscious choices when it comes to consuming and buying digital products.

It’s not a question of preaching here, but rather becoming part of the solution by helping, to the best of our ability, marketing departments and companies reduce their digital footprint.

Reducing our digital footprint: it’s within our grasp!

So what to do?

As we’ve seen, it’s the manufacturing phase that has the most impact. The key to reducing our digital footprint is first and foremost to extend the lifespan of your equipment, to keep your terminals for as long as possible, and if you have to renew them, to use refurbished devices.

With regards to businesses, they need to assess their digital footprint and adopt digital sobriety, which will result in restraint and prioritizing their usage in line with the company’s business model and values.

Wedia will follow up by studying new ways to reduce digital waste and make your digital habits more efficient.

One way involves the use of DAM (Digital Asset Management) to help creative and marketing teams reduce their carbon footprint. We have a specific article on this topic, so discover how a DAM can make your business more efficient, from reducing your digital file storage to simplifying your processes!

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