The environmental impact of digital

By Alexandra Pellas

28 January 2022

A growing percentage of global carbon emissions comes from digital. Find out how to address this when designing and delivering sustainable digital solutions.

Oftentimes we perceive digital solutions as green since the environmental cost is shifted out of our immediate environment – out of sight, out of mind. In fact, 4% of global carbon emissions is digital, a number that is growing 9% per year. This is something we need to address when designing and delivering digital solutions for an environmentally sustainable future.

First of all, we need to appreciate that digital is in fact physical

The digital products and services we use are accessed through physical devices, flowing through physical infrastructure, and stored in physical data-centers. All of which have their associated climate and biodiversity footprint.

Our consumption patterns are accelerating our environmental crises

The trends we see today in digital consumption, spending more and more time online and engaging with energy intensive content, is a main driver of digital’s environmental impact. Online video is now the primary digital service used worldwide, accounting for a staggering 60% of data flow.

Globally, it is calculated that video streaming emits as much CO2 as Spain (over 300 Mt per year). In addition, the explosion of blockchain technologies come with unprecedented levels of baked in CO2 emissions, and AI solutions need to be utilised with an appreciation for their heavy data consumption too.

But digital makes our lives better right?

A lot of digital content, processes and solutions that are produced are simply excessive. Be that unread newsletters. The 49 out of 50 selfies you didn’t use but never got around to deleting. The millions of videos on YouTube you didn’t watch and never will. NFTs that are created because ‘we can’ rather than ‘we need’ and so on.

This is culturally driven as much as it is driven by short term financial gains, but at the end of the day, we need to become more mindful of what we produce and consume, as digital waste is real waste.

The embedded environmental impact of the devices we use

We use digital products and services through our devices, such as laptops and mobile phones, and these devices are responsible for a range of environmental impact across their lifecycle. Starting with mining of raw material, large amounts of waste is often created, and the production of material is energy intensive.

Through these steps and the manufacturing of a product, toxic chemicals can be released and emissions increase once a product is transported – often across the world – to its destination.

Once sold and in use, digital devices consume energy while powered on as well as when idle, and when the day of disposal comes, 80% of e-waste is sent either to landfill or to developing countries where it is open-air burned to reclaim precious metals, releasing toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

So what are we supposed to do?

With all of this, we are not saying stop innovating and switch off all your technology. On the contrary, we need innovation more than ever to solve the climate and biodiversity crises we are in.

What we are saying is, if you are preparing for any type of digital project, transformation or innovation in your organisation, it’s important to keep in mind the environmental impact of the choices you make. There are always solutions better than the status quo, and we are always happy to discuss these with you.