Bucking the trend: Data traffic growth does not lead to increased energy consumption!

There has been a kind of curse that increased data volumes automatically lead to increased energy consumption. But now we are seeing a clear decoupling of these curves. Data usage is increasing but the total energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are not.

Senior specialist Environmental Impacts and Life Cycle Analysis

Senior specialist Environmental Impacts and Life Cycle Analysis

Internet use has grown faster in recent years and as a result so have energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. New research into this area, led by Dag Lundén of Telia and myself, was carried out at the Centre for Sustainable Communications (CESC) at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden. Our results show for the first time a trend reversal: Energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from information and communications technologies (ICT) in the media and consumer electronics sectors have been in decline since 2010 in Sweden despite a substantial increase in data traffic.

This trend applies to the relatively low carbon energy mix we have in Sweden with a high proportion of nuclear power and hydropower. It can also be seen when using a global energy mix in which coal and oil make up a larger share. The new study, which lasted a year, is a follow up of an earlier study and based on measured data – unlike many similar studies that are often based on modeling, extrapolation and assumptions.
In our research, we have a life-cycle approach. We examined the overall energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions that devices such as computers, televisions, and phones cause during their lifetime: Everything from the production of hardware in other countries to peripherals such as base stations, server rooms, and all the way to the content, the actual use and recycling are included.

We were both surprised by the buck in the trend being so clear. We found that people leaving big PCs and TVs and instead using smaller screens an important reason, but there are more factors. Our assessment is that the energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions will continue to decline until at least 2020. What happens after that is difficult to assess because of the extremely rapid pace of development in the ICT sector.
The results are summarized in an article that was nominated for the Best Paper Award at the 4th International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S), held on August 29 – September 1, 2016, in Amsterdam. ICT4S is an international conference on how information and communication technology can support sustainable development and it brings together the world’s leading experts in the field.

Similar studies from Germany and the US support our results as they also report a lower energy consumption for ICT in recent years. The scope is not as wide in other studies as the scope we used for Sweden, which also includes the whole life cycle, from manufacturing to End-of-Life, and total carbon emissions.

We think it’s time to focus more on how ICT can be used to reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions in other sectors like energy, buildings, travel and transport. ICT’s own impact appears to be under control and current trends in the ICT sector are positive.

Jens Malmodin
Ericsson Research

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