What is digital pollution and what to do to reduce it
Do not print this email unless it is necessary: so tells a small, moralizing jpg at the bottom of our company emails. If you too have thought (or still think) of the web as a dematerialized and eco-friendly solution, take a minute and read on.
Sustainable technology: a few numbers
According to Corriere della Sera, if we send an email with an attachment, we enter 50 grams of Co2 in the atmosphere. If we get lost in scrolling the facebook feed, our contribution will be around 300 grams of CO2 per year, while each call to a web page with multimedia content weighs 0.2 grams. As for carbon dioxide emissions, information technology is the fourth most polluting “place” in the world, after the United States, China and India.
According to estimates from a recent Capgemini report, the Internet generates 4% of CO2 emissions globally and the figure is expected to triple by 2025, compared to 2010 levels. It goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic has pressed on the accelerator of the process, moving work, didactic and contact processes to the web.
What is digital pollution
Digital pollution covers everything we do with the network. We are not just talking about the production and disposal of technological devices, but also and above all about everything related to the data: conservation, movement, construction and more or less efficient development of websites, heaviness of images, videos, streaming, etc.
The data (audio files, videos, images, website pages) occupy a virtual space (the server) and are transferred to a user’s IP whenever it requests them. This implies an energy cost. As for web-sites, consumption is a function of how many times a given page is requested and how efficiently this page responds to the call. If we think that Google servers alone contain 70 trillion pages, we get an idea of the order of magnitude of the amount of data traveling the web every day. The bulk of digital pollution comes from data centers where big tech companies store data and manage the operational processes that are essential to guarantee their services.
What are the causes of digital pollution: let’s summarize
In a nutshell, the basis of internet pollution is carbon dioxide emitted during the exchange of data or from the electrical systems necessary to operate the data centers of the main digital services. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, the impact of the extraction, refining of metals and their disposal must be added (remember that there are 34 billion smartphones, computers, game consoles and televisions on the planet and the number is expected to grow ).
There is also an interesting phenomenon underlined by Françoise Berthoud, a French researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), according to which the increase in efficiency in a given technology (in terms of time required, energy used, physical space or occupied memory) generates a new incremental need. In other words, the efficiency savings will always be fully or partially offset. The phenomenon is called the rebound effect and its environmental impact is indirect and more difficult to measure, nonetheless inherent in our economic model of growth.
Technology and environmental sustainability: big techs
The challenge is huge. The Big Tech announce ambitious goals: powering data centers exclusively with renewable energy, huge investments in funds for the environment, social and corporate responsibility initiatives, reforestation and financing of research projects. The purpose: to limit the damage by intervening on their direct activities, while avoiding the integration of the entire value chain and preserving the technical and design features that encourage consumption.
Best practices for online sustainability: what we can do
The challenge does not concern only the big names. We too can (and must) do our part. As programmers, for example, we can:
– keep the code clean (we can remove unused scripts which, if repeated over several sessions, keep consuming for no reason).
– optimize images (a fast site is generally more efficient and eco-friendly)
Not to mention the use we all make of smartphones and electronic devices. We all can:
– delete unnecessary photos
– delete apps we don’t use
– use exchange platforms for heavy files
– access web meetings switching-off the video
– send fewer photos, videos and voicemails
– use streaming carefully
– periodically clean the mail box
– open fewer windows on the desktop and avoid wasteful and unnecessary multitasking
– make a single backup
– clean up mailing lists and remove attachments to mails you are replying to
– optimize the size of the sending files / archive and use as much data as possible locally / unsubscribe from newsletters we are not interested in
We are ready to play our part. And you?