Digital Pollution: Cleaning Your Digital Footprint

As digital technologies continue to increase across the consumer and business spaces, the environmental impact these devices and the services they deliver is often forgotten or ignored. Digital pollution continues to be a clear and present danger.

Research from Cleanfox outlines the issue: “Businesses will be under intense scrutiny with sustainability practices, especially as digital pollution is the biggest threat to our world’s climate change. ICT will account for 14% of the world’s energy consumption, and data centres will account for 45% of ICT’s carbon footprint, which is why we must tackle digital content such as emails. The internet is essential to our everyday lives. Still, if we do not start to manage how we use it, we will all suffer – so let’s use the internet positively to spread awareness on these ecological issues.

“Every day, we send and receive over 125 billion business emails and over 117 billion consumer emails, with little realization of the pollution this creates. Emails are integral to business communications, but unwanted and unnecessary promotional emails are not. We found that 60% of emails go unopened, a carbon footprint of 1.5 million unuseful tons of CO2. 2020 will see a rise in businesses applying tech-for-good solutions to permanently erase emails/data to dramatically reduce carbon footprint, making them smarter, stronger and more efficient.”

Businesses in the tech sector understand they do need to do more. Microsoft became the latest to state its intentions: The company pledges not just to become carbon neutral, but carbon negative by 2030 and, by 2050 it will remove more carbon from the environment than it emits.

At the time of the announcement, Microsoft said: “We recognize that progress requires not just a bold goal but a detailed plan. As described below, we are launching today an aggressive program to cut our carbon emissions by more than half by 2030, both for our direct emissions and our entire supply and value chain. We will fund this in part by expanding our internal carbon fee, in place since 2012 and increased last year, to start charging not only our direct emissions but those from our supply and value chains.”

Companies across the gaming sector have also pledged to reduce their carbon footprint over the same timeframe. Research from SlotsOnlineCanada reveals that digitally downloading a video game has a carbon footprint of 0.017kg while buying a physical copy results in 0.39kg of CO2. Producing boxed copies emits more than twenty times the CO2 emissions of digital downloads, which made up 83% of video game sales last year.

Of course, switching to downloading directly moves the carbon footprint to the vast server farms which have also expanded exponentially as digital services have increased. In 2016, the world’s data centres consumed more electricity than the whole of the UK. And it is predicted by 2025; data centres could account for 3.2% of all global carbon emissions.

Google has already experimented by building new data centres in colder countries to reduce the energy consumption needed to cool these vast centres. And with IDC predicting global data traffic to increase 61% by 2025 to 175 zettabytes, there is a pressing needed to reduce the environmental impact this data will have.

Reducing your footprint

Although terms like ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘carbon emissions’ are frequently being used, there is a lack of understanding as to what these numbers actually mean. This video from Viessmann is revealing.

The drive to digitize business and the coming 5G revolution will just add to the digital footprint of companies and consumers alike. The infrastructure to support this massive expansion will need increasing quantities of power. In a progressively digital world, can emissions be reduced on a practical level?

Speaking to Mike Paxton, Head of Sales EMEA at Canto he told Silicon UK: “Behaviour is typically driven by what impacts our daily lives. If an individual feels a concept is too far removed from their responsibility, they won’t be compelled to change. This could be said for how digital is used and data is stored. Many people are unaware of the environmental impacts of increasing amounts of data.

Mike Paxton, Head of Sales EMEA at Canto.

“However, what we do know is that when it comes to the volume of digital content stored by organizations, there are huge inefficiencies. Outdated files that no longer serve a purpose and duplicate files exist. Teams working in different locations will often save versions of the same folders to local shared servers, and it becomes time-consuming or even impossible for IT teams to police this. It’s these inefficiencies – which ultimately result in the inability to quickly find the digital files you are looking for at a later date – that are reducing employee productivity. And this really does have a personal impact.”

To explore how something as seemingly harmless as an email can have a profound impact on the environment, Silicon UK spoke with Edouard Nattée, CEO and Co-founder of Cleanfox.

Edouard Nattée, CEO and Co-founder of Cleanfox.

Data has now become the lifeblood of many companies. How can they reduce their digital footprint, and therefore, their digital pollution?

The first step is to be able to measure your digital footprint. Businesses have to be aware that the problem exists. We blissfully live life without understanding how much energy and resources are used to power our daily digital lives. We rarely consider that an email accounts for an average of 10g of carbon, for instance, and up to 50g if sent with a GIF or attachment.

Education is key for businesses to appreciate the impact of often mindless web-browsing, such as scrolling through an app and a video is automatically played. The environmental impact of that is huge. Internet companies must become more responsible with how data is offered to people, giving them clear options to opt-out of auto-playing. People and companies must also be alerted to the free tools available to help combat immaterial data, such as promotional emails that we never open. These simple tactics will help fight digital pollution.

At the same time, internet companies must change the way data is managed and stored. For example, if more than 20 people don’t see a video, it should be archived and eventually erased. Another option is having expiry dates for promotional emails sent to customers. If the email isn’t opened, then it is deleted permanently. Setting timeframes on how long content and data is stored, will become a huge trend to combating digital pollution. These are easy solutions to implement.

Companies must also use eco-friendly data centers. This means data centers powered by renewable sources and any secondary energy generated from the data centers (i.e. heat) can be used to warm local swimming pools as we do in France. However, limiting the amount of data stored will need to become part of the strategy, such as how we store our videos and pictures on the cloud. Cloud providers like Google, Microsoft, iCloud and Amazon Web Services (AWS) should be forced to endorse best practice policies with the use of data centers.

Lastly, governments also have a vital part to play and should implement measures to prevent digital pollution from skyrocketing. We are already there, and we need to start acknowledging its existence as part of the whole climate change policy.

As we enter the age of 5G and IoT, will this simply expand digital pollution?

Yes, and it is already getting worse. Super-fast devices are accessible to almost everyone now, which means that mining these hazardous materials to produce these devices have a substantial environmental impact. The 5G infrastructure market is estimated to be valued at USD$784 million in 2019 and is projected to reach USD$47,775 million by 2027, at a CAGR of 67.1%.

Lower latency in 5G, growing adoption of virtual networking architecture in telecommunications, and growth in mobile data traffic are among the major driving factors for the growth of the 5G infrastructure market. Increasing M2M/IoT connections across various industries are also expected to fuel the growth of the 5G infrastructure market.

Even if the figures are unclear, analysis show that the amount of data produced is doubling on a two-year basis. These calculations are elaborated based on a given tech stack (for instance, 4G and the current growth of connected devices). 5G and IOT will boost each of these underlying drivers to unprecedented levels, and that will definitely make the problem of IT-related CO2 emissions even bigger.

Don’t forget, we have to account for the energy consumption to power and run these devices that people often forget – and this is a massive part of digital pollution. As we become more technologically advanced across the globe – even in the remotest of places, we require energy to power our devices. We also need this energy to access, transfer and store this data – such as sending and receiving emails, streaming content like Netflix and porn, which uses bandwidth power for data transfer – and data centres for storage.

Adding the IoT (The Internet of Things) into the mix means that there will be billions of internet-connected devices which could produce 3.5% of global emissions within ten years and 14% by 2040. That is enormous and down to the data produced and power used.

It is estimated that historically ICT equipment accounted for as much as 8% of total global energy consumption, and is projected to reach 14% by 2020
The internet/ICT industry accounts for 2% of global carbon emissions, and by next year (2020) will account for 3.6%. As a comparison, concrete accounts for 10% of global emissions, but the ICT industry is growing at a much faster rate.

Everything is related to storage, which means hyper-scale data centres are growing exponentially, and email is a huge part of this problem. How long does it take the world to build 100 hyperscale data centres? Lately, about two years. The number of these massive facilities that house all our data, serve all our entertainment, and power and cool the computing infrastructure for applications our lives now revolve around, is now at 504 in Q3 2019, according to Synergy Research.

With 5G entering the picture, the sustainability of all the above must be addressed immediately, because we are living in an era where we now have massive data lakes to contend with that need to be processed for us to access our data.

With seemingly unlimited bandwidth and unlimited storage, do we need a change in attitude and behaviour to reduce digital pollution?

Digital pollution is no different than any other source of pollution. We need the following:

  • Be able to measure and track digital pollution to raise awareness around it.
  • Good practices and rules to adapt our use of internet and data and mitigate our digital pollution.
  • Incentives from companies and governments and new solutions like Cleanfox, Lilo, Ecosia etc.
  • Companies should consider employing a Sustainability Director to work closely with CIO/CTOs to manage the digital impact of the company.

Are CTOs and CIOs conflicted as they are tasked with the digital transformation of their businesses yet, want to reduce emissions and their overall environmental impact. Can they reconcile these seemingly opposing drivers?

It’s funny – today data is the first part of the solution to every problem that we have, but if you take data privacy or digital pollution, then data is also becoming part of the problem. Democracy can be improved with the internet, but it can also be destroyed by it. The climate crisis can be solved with the help of data, but the issue can also be drowned in too much data.

First of all, CTOs and CIOs need to learn how to measure their impact as well as the different strategies to limit it. It’s usually not something that is taught at school and will require a small investment in terms of time and training from the tech C-levels and their teams. For instance, with Cleanfox, we have achieved tremendous progress by adding the CPU time and storage requirements in all the infrastructure and code-related decisions.

Then, the optimization for limiting CO2 emissions are usually aligned with costs reduction initiatives. So, it often plays in favour of adding digital pollution reduction programs in tech roadmaps. The three situations we’ve experienced could end up being conflictual are:

  • The need to shift from one cloud provider to a more eco-friendly one.
  • Reducing the TTL (time to live) of datasets.
  • Limiting the refresh rate of data warehouses (for BI purposes for example).

Are we headed towards a ‘data tax’ to help reduce emissions?

There are already fiscal costs associated with overall carbon emissions. Defining a specific data tax would be probably counter-productive as it would set a price to pollute (almost a permission as long as you pay) and it would also be technically impossible to define, implement and enforce.

Although, before we talk about taxes, we should be talking about responsible behaviours.

If you take newsletters, they could have an expiry date. When you think of your smartphone, some people are taking 20 to 100 photographs each week, which is saved on the cloud. Google, Apple and other storage providers could introduce algorithms that save important pictures, rather than every single photograph. We need a set of best practices focusing on reducing the amount of data that is created on databases.

The good news with digital pollution is that, though it is a huge source of pollution, it is far from irreversible. The internet moves fast, and a lot of new initiatives emerge for a greener internet. The internet can be both the problem and the solution. There are many things you can do to reduce your CO2 emissions. You can travel less. You can eat less meat. You can sell your car. You can do many things, but they all have some downsides, which is often less pleasure for the individual that is making the sacrifice.

Cleaning your inbox is literally painless! If there’s something that there’s no excuse not to do, it’s cleaning your inbox. What’s the worst thing that can happen? That you stop paying Google because you’re no longer over the storage limit?

David Howell

Dave Howell is a freelance journalist and writer. His work has appeared across the national press and in industry-leading magazines and websites. He specialises in technology and business. Read more about Dave on his website: Nexus Publishing.

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