The carbon cost of working from home
During the pandemic, technology was a vital lifeline for businesses and individuals. But at what cost in the longer run?
Hybrid working has seen a huge increase in use of laptops, tablets and smartphones to enable us to stay in touch. But this has a largely hidden impact on the planet. Every post on Instagram, email, or Teams meeting indirectly pollutes the environment. Through its intense power usage, our digital activity is one of the most insidious pollutants.
According to a report by the digital agency We Are Social, 60% of the world’s population is now online. The report reveals that internet users have increased by more than 330 million in the past year, making a total of more than 4.7 billion. The pandemic-induced shift to a more digital lifestyle from as a result of remote working has reduced the global CO2 emissions, in addition to global travel restrictions, resulting in a 5.8% decrease in CO2 emissions in 2020.
Despite the decline, the latest data in the Global Energy Review 2021 predicts that carbon emission will grow by 4.8% in 2021 as the strong demand for oil, gas, and coal returned with economic activity. Our heavy reliance on the internet, including via remote working, has the potential to cause an additional 34.3 million tons in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. To counteract that would require a forest twice the size of Portugal, the study states.
Music and video streaming alone is the biggest cause of the internet’s energy consumption. An hour of video streaming can produce between 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, depending on the streaming device – and suddenly clickbait seems even more nefarious! Even worse, one bitcoin transaction can consume around 1752.79 kWh, the same amount of power consumed by an average U.S. household over two months.
“It is great that we are reducing emissions in some sectors;” says Maryam Arbabzadeh, “but at the same time, using the internet also has an environmental impact contributing to the aggregate. The electricity used to power the internet, with its associated carbon, water, and land footprints, isn’t the only thing impacting the environment; the transmission and storage of data also requires water to cool the systems within the data centers.”
The transmission of data is a process that involves millions of physical servers in data centers all over the world. These consume a lot of energy to operate, and most of that energy comes from power sources that release carbon dioxide. Although a small amount of carbon dioxide is released whenever a single person uses the internet, the amount of carbon emissions of the whole world’s digital activity is huge.
As alarming as that sounds, certain measures can be taken to reduce our digital carbon footprint. Something as simple as our turning cameras off during videocalls can reduce a call’s environmental footprint by 96%. The good news is many organizations and governments are trying to achieve net zero carbon emissions. The UK government had achieved acclaim as the first major economy to take on a legal commitment to reach the net zero emissions target by 2050, although in recent times its decisions on new oil and gas franchises called that commitment into doubt.
Data centres are also pushing towards a green agenda. They can have a huge impact as well as drive change by adopting sustainability. The EcoDataCentre in Sweden is the world’s first climate-positive data centre. The centre is run by 100% renewable energy with digital technologies to make it energy efficient. With the power usage effectiveness ratio of 1.15 compared to the industry’s average of 1.6, the centre is a positive example of how data centres can be efficient as well as sustainable. Moreover, any excess heat generated becomes the supply for the local district heating network.
Although the world is rapidly moving towards digital, there is still hope for the environment. Awareness needs to be raised about the hidden impact of digital tools. The least we can do is limit our streaming time. And perhaps the next time we hop on a conference call, or call a friend, we can leave our cameras off.
Martin Tripp Associates is a specialist executive search consultancy. We work globally across the media, information, technology and entertainment sectors, and with some of the world’s biggest brands on senior communications, digital, marketing and technology roles. Feel free to contact us to discuss.