Understanding the environmental impact of the digital industry
We’re in a climate and ecological emergency.
The risk to the health of all inhabitants of our planet is well documented, but the financial impact is now also starting to be researched and accepted. For the first time in its 15 year history the World Economic Forum has listed environmental risks as five of the most likely to cause damage to the world economy, and companies with clear, certified plans on reducing their impact on the planet are outperforming peers by 5% on the stock market.
Depending on the type of organisation it may be more or less obvious where a positive impact can be made when it comes to physical business operations.
But an often overlooked source of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions is digital activity. Due to the out of date and unreliable research there is much disagreement about the overall impact of the digital industry, exacerbated by blurred boundaries of what exactly constitutes the digital industry in the first place.
The dark side of digital
The most widely accepted, and peer reviewed research, shows that between 2010-2015 the global digital industry was responsible for 1.4% of global emissions. Included here are user devices, networks and data centres. This puts it on a par with the aviation industry.
There is important context for this discussion. Firstly, the emissions from the digital industry are inextricably linked to the energy mix of the planet. If the energy industry decarbonises, the emissions from the digital industry will decarbonise, which is why comparisons to the aviation industry could be misinterpreted.
Secondly, the powerhouses of the digital industry, hyperscale data centres, have become impressively efficient over the past few years in the face of enormous growth in demand. Despite a nearly 400% increase in internet traffic, data centre energy use at data centres has stayed consistent with what it was in 2015. This isn’t altruism on the part of the tech giants, it’s the only way they can sustain the race to decrease prices for their services and shut out start up and niche players.
However, and thirdly, this innovation has not been matched by innovation elsewhere in the elements that make up the internet and wider digital industry. This emphasises that those using the data centres directly (organisations) and indirectly (consumers) need to radically change.
Therefore it is imperative that, in line with the physical industry emissions and waste crises we find ourselves in, unnecessary digital consumption and inefficiencies are reduced. It is crucial for organisations to be transparent in this area.
Efficiency and complacency
With the increased energy efficiency of the digital industry, other factors have come into play.
The Jevons efficiency paradox states:
‘In addition to reducing the amount needed for a given use, improved efficiency also lowers the relative cost of using a resource, which increases the quantity demanded. This counteracts the reduction in use from improved efficiency.’
There’s a lot more to this paradox but it raises a very interesting point for our digital consumption. The cloud is so easy and efficient that we’re storing a whole load more than we should be. Space is so cheap and easy we’re creating wasteful websites, applications, API calls, architectures (the list goes on) because there’s no driver to make them efficient.
The original subject of Jevons’ observations was coal, the industrial revolution and more efficient steam trains. To use that as an analogy, what we (as the digital industry) are doing at the moment is using the efficient steam train but we’re not bothering to check or optimise what we pack onto it. This means we’re taking multiple journeys when we could have made one (or even better, no trips at all!).
Demand more, consume less
So what does that mean? It means we need to demand more from organisations.
What we’re doing digitally is the exact same thing we’re doing in the physical world. Our governments are letting our organisations get away with being extraordinarily wasteful and harmful to our planet. Our organisations are letting the people within them chase short term profits not long term sustainability (by long term, I don’t mean a 5 year strategy, I mean across tens of thousands of years). Finally, we as consumers are justifying and excusing the behaviour of governments and organisations by continuing to consume.
Efficiency causing complacency is never better shown than by this statistic:
As an entire industry we have to take responsibility for this increase. As strategists, product owners, designers, tech architects, developers, testers and marketeers, we cannot expect people who use our sites and apps to make informed choices about the emissions caused by their use, because we’re not giving them anything to base a decision on.
If we don’t empower people to make that decision then we at least need to repay their trust in us and do everything we can to reduce the environmental impact.
This isn’t just good for the planet. The fundamentals of designing, building and writing a less environmentally impactful site translate into better performance and experience for the people using it. It also allows organisations to save money as their spend at data centres will reduce as a result.
We’ll explore how to measure and reduce the carbon impact of digital tools in the next article.