Environmentally Sustainable Online Behaviour
A team of scientists in the States (Purdue, Yale, and MIT) together with the Centre for Environmental Policy (Imperial College, London) have been crunching some eye-opening numbers.
With them and their study, the question of how to promote sustainable digital behaviour emerges with unexpected intensity. There is such a thing as an environmental footprint of internet use. And many of us know very well that this use has increased significantly in the last 10 months.
In the world of education via Zoom, Teams and other videoconferencing platforms the debate of whether cameras should be on or off, suddenly becomes also a matter of environmental impact. If we did not turn on our cameras for 15 1-hour long meetings a week, we would be reducing carbon dioxide emissions by over 9 kilograms per month.
We also learn from this timely paper: The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing Internet use that "If 1 million videoconference users were to make this change, they would collectively reduce emissions by 9023 t of CO2e in one month, the equivalent emissions of powering a town of 36,000 people for one month via coal".
Switching on the camera is only one of the ways in which we incur in hidden environmental costs that very few have yet been talking about. Streaming HD videos is another activity that we could reconsider in light of the evidence. Just lowering the quality from HD to standard would make our monthly footprint drop quite significantly as well.
At the individual level, as usual, this does not sound terribly worrying, perhaps. It is when multiplying by the millions and when looking at the different various energy mixes that generate power in different countries to sustain internet use, data storage and transmission that one can start seeing the dimensions of the problem. "An unregulated and environmentally unaudited digital world" is not an option any more.Merzouga, Morocco
Environmental justice is also a topic here, as data processing and storage may not occur in the same geographic zone where it is being used. However, in characteristically digital discourse, "cloud" is a metaphor that helps to ignore the materiality and the physical presence that the digital's infrastructure actually has. Ethical concerns have been previously raised in connection to the heavy footprint of Information and Communication Technologies with high consumption of non-renewable energy and limited resources, waste production and CO2, and also in terms of the inequality in accesing data, but only recently there has been some effort in articulating the individual and institutional responsibilities.
"Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint," said Kaveh Madani, who led and directed this study as a visiting fellow at the Yale MacMillan Center.
So despite a record drop in global carbon emissions in 2020, the pandemic-driven shift to remote work and more at-home entertainment is a significant environmental challenge due to how internet data is stored and transferred around the world. Next time you stream a video or you think about switching on your camera, consider whether there is a cheaper and yet acceptable environmentally-more-friendly alternative. Technological choices have, after all, cultural, social, political and ethical implications, because data consumption is no less environmentally problematic than material goods consumption.
Lucivero F. (2020). Big Data, Big Waste? A Reflection on the Environmental Sustainability of Big Data Initiatives. Science and engineering ethics, 26(2), 1009–1030. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-019-00171-7