The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted such a deep wound on humanity that there is hardly any aspect of our lives that has not been affected. Nor is our collective home exempt from the effects of this scourge; while it is still too early to know what the pandemic’s impact on the environment and climate change will be in the long term, at a minimum the COVID-19 tragedy may have spurred some necessary transformations. For example, the spread of teleworking results in reduced commuting and business travel, which can cut emissions from transport. But here too there is fine print that is not all positive. COVID-19 has increased internet use by 20% in many countries, which could expand the global carbon footprint by 34.3 million tonnes of CO2 by 2021. While online remote working does impose its own environmental footprint, we can still reduce it by working in a more sustainable way.
The fact that our computers, mobile phones and other devices don’t come equipped with an exhaust pipe may give us the impression that their environmental impact is negligible, but this is not the case. The electricity we use in our homes to recharge them, the energy consumed by the large data centres, servers and infrastructures that keep the network operational for our online connections, along with the processes of extraction of raw materials—including the growing demand for so-called rare earths—and the manufacture of the devices themselves, their transport, distribution and so on, all add up to a considerable environmental footprint.
Clearly, we could not live today without digital technologies, which have become both heavily used daily tools and essential drivers of economic and social development. But as The Shift Project (TSP), a French think-tank on energy transition, warns in a 2019 report, “the current trend for digital overconsumption in the world is not sustainable with respect to the supply of energy material it requires.” This organisation estimates that from 2013 to 2019, the contribution of digital technologies to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has increased from 2.5% to 3.7%, a 50% rise. A study by McMaster University in Canada estimated that by 2040 they will account for 14%, a percentage equivalent to the current contribution of direct emissions from the transport sector, as calculated by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Faced with these alarming figures, TSP proposes an attitude of “digital sobriety”, which involves “purchasing the least powerful devices possible, and changing them as seldom as possible, while reducing superfluous energy consuming uses.” In other words, using technology and exploiting its benefits, but doing so more rationally and in a way that is tailored to real needs. This approach applies to teleworking as well, which TSP believes is also a source of efficiency for companies.
Extending the life of devices
One of the tenets of this digital sobriety is to change devices only when strictly necessary. The relentless drive of digital technology manufacturers to continually launch new models, especially smartphones, leads many users to discard their devices when they are still functional and able to do their job. These upgrades come at a high environmental cost: according to TSP, manufacturing one gram of a smartphone consumes 80 times more energy than manufacturing one gram of a car. McMaster University notes that 85% of the emissions from mobile phones occur during manufacturing, which is equivalent to ten years of use. A study by the European Environmental Bureau estimates that extending the lifespan of smartphones and other devices by an extra year—the average European changes mobile phones every three years—would save as much annual GHG emissions as taking two million cars off the road, the equivalent of Denmark’s total car fleet.
Nor can proper recycling of discarded devices be relied upon to reduce these emissions; according to TSP, a worrying trend has set in, with each new generation of a given device (they cite the Apple iPhone as an example) having a larger carbon footprint than the previous one. In addition, the recycling of new models also consumes more energy to separate the metals as miniaturisation and the complexity of the assembly of the components continues unabated.
Streamlining the use
Although the greatest environmental burden of devices lies in their manufacture, their use also adds to their ecological cost due to the energy consumption of users and online service providers. According to McMaster University, smartphones make the largest contribution to GHG emissions of all digital devices, surpassing desktops, laptops and displays. However, TSP cautions that smartphone use accounts for a smaller percentage of total lifecycle energy consumption (6%) than that of a laptop (11%) or a TV (33%).
In his book How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, carbon footprint expert Mike Berners-Lee (brother of the creator of the World Wide Web) calculated that using a mobile phone for just two minutes a day for a year emits 47 kilos of CO2. McMaster’s estimate is that in 2020, internet services emitted some 764 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e).
In order to reduce the total environmental cost of devices, in manufacture and use, TSP recommends a simple measure: use a single smartphone for personal and business purposes with dual SIM cards, rather than two different devices. Increasing the proportion of dual SIM mobiles from 20% to 70% would reduce associated GHG emissions by 37%.
Use more energy-efficient apps and options
When choosing the service options and apps available on the market, we can also act in a more environmentally-friendly way. For example, for online collaborative work, TSP recommends using cloud-based platforms to share documents, rather than sending them by email. As an example, if five employees work on the same 1 MB document to produce four successive versions, using only online platforms saves 81% of annual GHG emissions compared to solely relying on email.
Online video viewing is one of the digital activities with the highest environmental footprint. TSP estimates that its energy impact is 1,500 times greater than the electricity consumption of the smartphone itself; the energy expenditure of watching a 10-minute video is equivalent to five hours of non-stop typing and emailing. Unsurprisingly, the impact is greater with HD streaming: that same 10-minute video consumes as much as a 2,000-watt electric oven at full power for half the time.
Therefore, a recent study by Yale University, Purdue University, Imperial College London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that estimated the impact of online activities in terms of carbon footprint, water footprint and land use, recommends viewing videos from streaming services in standard definition where possible to reduce the environmental footprint by 86%. The study also advises turning off the camera during video conferences, which can reduce the impact by 96%. According to the researchers, one hour of video conferencing emits between 150 grams and one kilo of CO2, consumes from two to 12 litres of water and is equivalent to the use of a piece of land the size of an iPad mini.