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What is a digital carbon footprint?

Updated Thursday, 15 September 2022

With increasing awareness of carbon footprints, how much does our digital lifestyle contribute? This article examines the impact.

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Carbon footprint

According to the World Meteorology Organisations, the occurrence of extreme climate events has increased by more than a factor of five in the last 50 years. 

In their 2021 report, they state that the number of reported climate disasters rose from 711 in the 1970s to 3,165 in the decade between 2010 and 2019.  

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that many more of us have become climate change aware in recent years. Accordingly, we have also become aware that our choice of travel, our diet, the things we wear and how we heat our homes all have a climate impact. 

This impact has become known as a ‘carbon footprint’ and represents the amount of carbon dioxide that our activities or choices have contributed to the atmosphere. Strictly speaking, carbon dioxide (CO2) is just one of many gasses known as ‘greenhouse gasses (GHG), and a carbon footprint encapsulates all GHGs, not just CO2. 

Not all GHGs are equivalent. Some have a stronger effect, while others last longer. Therefore, in order to simplify complex chemical processes, the various GHGs are represented in equivalents related to the nominal effect of carbon dioxide; known as the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). 

In the last couple of years, a plethora of smartphone apps have hit the app stores with the aim of helping consumers understand and tackle their carbon footprints. Indeed, many banks now provide carbon footprint analysis of spend categories within their own apps. All in all, this means awareness of carbon footprints is higher than it has ever been. 

However, there is one very significant part of our lifestyles that is difficult to find, or indeed absent, in many of these carbon footprint calculators – if you haven’t guessed already, it’s our digital lifestyle. 




Digital carbon footprints 

Digital carbon footprints encapsulate the CO2e emissions attributable to the digital products and services we are so dependent on in our modern lives. 

The ethereal nature of an email vs a physical letter or watching a movie at home vs venturing out to a large, out-of-town cinema complex, tricks us into thinking the digital option is inconsequential in comparison. 

Indeed, watching a movie at home likely contributes to less carbon than hopping in a conventional car and driving to a specially constructed large building, where you might be tempted to consume even more physical products. 

However, it is not inconsequential, nor as little as you might expect – digital is not carbon-free, and everything from asset tracking tags to mobile phones, racks of computer servers, video conference calls and ‘smart’ things have footprints. 

When a trickle becomes a flood 

British author Winston Graham once wrote about how neglecting a trickle of water escaping from a dam can rapidly turn into a flood that washes you away. Neglecting our digital carbon footprint is indeed akin to neglecting a leaky dam. But not just a regular dam, a dam that is doubling in capacity every year. 

This is the crux of the challenge with digital carbon footprints – our use of and dependency on digital isn’t stable, or growing slowly, it is growing exponentially. 

Fuelled by both the rapid increase in digitalisation brought about by the pandemic and our false assumption that digital is carbon-free (or thereabouts), the impact of our digital lifestyles is accelerating at an incredible rate and shows no signs of abating. 

How big? 

The question of exactly how big our collective carbon footprint is, is one of ongoing discussion.  

Current estimates put the total carbon emissions of the internet at a whopping 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2e in 2020. 

To put that in context, the combined CO2e emissions of the 27 EU nations in 2020 was 2.6 billion tonnes, India accounted for 2.44 billion, and Russia contributed 1.58 billion tonnes. 




The road to renewables  

A quarter (25%) of global carbon emissions come from electricity generation and the internet uses a great deal of electricity. Exactly how much is, again, still an open debate. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth report cites the combined electricity use of consumer devices, data centres and networks as accounting for between 6 and 12% of total global energy use. 

While this is also an enormous chunk of total global energy use, there is a glimmer of hope here, because the internet industry is widely known to be advancing their switch from conventional fuels to renewable sources. 

However, there are nuances that we should be mindful of here, too.  

While the IPCC’s estimate of the internet energy consumption encapsulates a wide proportion of our digital lives, it is not complete. Digital technologies can and do exist beyond the definitions of the internet. 

For example, our digital lives and carbon footprint extend to TVs, set-top boxes, printers, portable hard drives, USB cables…yes, USB cables, let’s get on to that… 

It’s 80/20 again 

Digital carbon footprints are not all about the carbon created by the energy consumed when we use our phones, laptops or smart speakers. Our digital services, products and accessories have a carbon history long before we touch them. 

Approximately 80% of a product’s lifetime carbon footprint is embodied within the device itself. This includes the CO2e generated during manufacture, storage, and transportation. 

That means that when you buy a new smartphone that requires a USB cable for charging, that cable’s CO2e emissions (as well as the charger and packaging) are part of the product’s overall embodied footprint. 

This leads to a simple revelation – the biggest single thing we can do to cut our digital carbon footprint is buy less and extend the usable lifetime of the things we already have. 

The remaining 20% comes from the energy required to use the product or service during its lifetime.  

While this 20% may seem like a worthless distraction in the face of the hefty 80%, as our usage of digital technology continues to accelerate over time, a continuous growth of unconscious wasted energy consumption could swing the balance. 

How to reduce your digital carbon footprint 

On an individual basis, our digital carbon footprints comprise a few large, carbon-intensive elements and many smaller, incremental factors. Our challenge is to become more aware of the fact that digital is not carbon-free, then to make changes in our habits to avoid unnecessary wasted energy use.  


Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.
Vincent van Gogh


Some of these changes are both easy to make and impactful.  

At an industry, organisational or enterprise level, we have the potential to make changes whose effect multiplies across our communities to give significant scale.  


More on digital carbon footprints


 


This resource is part of the Supporting hybrid working and digital transformation collection, made possible by the Higher Educational Funding Council for Wales.

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