What Are Digital Emissions?
In an age of misinformation, political polarisation and deepening mental health challenges, there’s much we blame on our love for technology. But as smartphones become even more ubiquitous and internet access becomes more vital to everyday life, there’s one problem that isn’t getting enough attention: digital emissions.
You may associate carbon emissions with factory smokestacks or jets stretching trails across the sky, but your modem or laptop creates carbon consequences, too. Our digital activities currently account for 3.7% of total greenhouse gas emissions, around the same as the entire aviation industry. What’s even more troubling is that digital emissions are set to double from 2020 to 2025, as over 1 million people come online for the first time every single day.
Not all data are created equal
So, what exactly do we mean when we say ‘digital emissions?’ It essentially refers to all emissions generated by the manufacturing and shipping of hardware such as computers, smartphones, and servers, and the power consumed to power and cool those devices.
Each time we perform an action like sending an email or streaming a movie we are engaging this infrastructure – an infrastructure still mainly powered by the burning of fossil fuels.
Simply put: the more data you’re using, the more carbon is emitted. At one end, scrolling through Instagram or reading an article won’t emit much, but streaming a movie will use a lot more – up to 80% of digital emissions are generated by moving images. Though the emissions generated by a single movie or text are tiny, multiplied across the global population it’s easy to see why these small actions have big carbon consequences.
Cryptocurrencies: a climate catastrophe
New technologies are opening new fronts in the war against our atmosphere. Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are near enough household names by now, but few are aware of the monumental energy demands these technologies require.
Bitcoin is created and traded in a process that requires massive amounts of computing power to process complicated maths and keep the currency encrypted. As its popularity has skyrocketed, so too has its carbon footprint.
Bitcoin is far from a clean, green method of wealth storage or production, with Bank of America reporting that “each $1 billion in inflows into Bitcoin uses the same amount of energy as 1.2 million cars.” To put it another way, while it requires ‘only’ 5 megajoules (MJ) of energy to create $1 of gold, it requires 17MJ to create bitcoin of the same value.
NFTs: a polluting art form
This problem is further exacerbated by the trend for purchasing ‘NFTs’ – digital tokens proving ownership of virtual artworks. Sales that have hit the headlines include Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s first tweet selling for US$3 million, and a crudely drawn alien with a pipe called ‘CryptoPunk 7804’ fetching US7.5 million at auction.
Besides the questionable nature of spending money to own something that only exists online, NFTs are very polluting. They’re traded using a cryptocurrency called Ethereum, which works in the same energy-intensive style as Bitcoin, with Ethereum as a whole using as much electricity per year as the entire state of Nigeria. The ethical dilemma is becoming too hard to ignore even for the artists. One digital artist recently cancelled her sale of six artworks when she discovered the sale would use in just 10 seconds enough electricity to power her whole studio for two years.
What can you do to reduce your emissions?
If all this talk of yet another driver of carbon emissions is getting you down, we don’t blame you. However, although you can’t affect what happens globally, you can take measures to reduce your own digital emissions. Here’s how.
- Power your home with renewables like solar panels, heat pumps, or turbines.
- Reduce streaming. Video streaming is responsible for 75% of data usage. If you still want to watch movies and TV, downloading them is much less intensive.
- If you stream, stream at a lower resolution.
- Use your devices for longer. Every time you buy a new device, you’re contributing to the production emissions into the atmosphere. Try and get as much use as you can out of your tech before replacing it.
- Empty your email inbox regularly to reduce data storage.
- Avoid using the cloud, instead, use your local storage.
- Using Wifi uses less energy than mobile networks.
- Turn Autoplay off on Youtube.
- If you use your device for background noise while you sleep, set a timer so that it turns off after you’ve fallen asleep.