What’s the real climate impact of digital technology?

Have you ever worried how your social media, gaming or streaming habits impact the climate? According to our recent digital carbon footprint report, the true impact may actually be a lot smaller than you think. Read below to find out why.

Person using device for messaging and streaming at home
Feb 10, 2020
Category, topic & hashtags

Did you hear that the ICT industry emits as much carbon dioxide as the aviation industry? Or that streaming video for one hour a week is like running two refrigerators? Neither is correct. Yet both are typical of some of the articles I have read in recent years.

For many years, my research efforts have focused on the sustainability impacts of ICT solutions. Throughout this time, I have read many different claims about the climate impact of ICT which simply do not add up.

For this reason, we recently launched our quick guide to your digital carbon footprint. Based on common examples, the report challenges the many misconceptions regarding the footprints of digital products and services.

After all, understanding majors and minors in terms of carbon footprints is key to addressing them in an effective way.

 

A quick guide to your digital carbon footprint

As a researcher I am focused on getting the facts right and passionate about finding new ways to communicate them.

While I might be inclined to swallow misleading headlines in any other context; in this case, when I have knowledge, it is much easier for me to see when discussions and statements are wrong or just simplified too much.

Below, I intend to take a closer look at some of those statements and hope to dispel some of the myths once and for all.

 


The climate impact of digital technologies

Before we go further, let’s begin by examining the potential climate impact of the ICT sector. We know that it can impact the climate in three ways:

  1. Direct carbon emissions (i.e. CO2-eq) associated with ICT manufacturing, use and disposal (ICT’s carbon footprint). This includes user devices like phones, computers and small home routers; all parts of the fixed and mobile networks; and data centers also including enterprise networks.
  2. Indirect positive or negative emission effects from using ICT (e.g. travel substitution, transportation optimization)
  3. Impacting behaviors and preferences (reshaping how we lead our lives on a societal level)  

The first one is the smallest in terms of climate impact, but it is clearly right in our backyard and our responsibility as an industry to address it. Moreover, this is what people usually think about when they discuss the climate impacts of digitalization.

Our research shows that the carbon footprint of the ICT sector is about 1.4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, including the whole life cycle for all parts of the sector. In real numbers, that’s approximately 730 million tonnes CO2-eq. The carbon footprint of the ICT sector increased until 2010 but has since stayed fairly constant despite increasing numbers of ICT users worldwide and the exponential growth in data traffic.

However, ICT´s footprint is relatively small compared to its potential other impacts, as all sectors of the economy become digitalized. This makes ICT a wildcard of the economy - in the right framing the technology could be a major tool to implement low-carbon and circular solutions in all sectors - used wrongly, however, it could also accelerate carbon intensive processes and businesses – or be used to spread claims with little support in research. Claims such as those discussed in this blog. But the focus of this blog is the first category – ICT´s carbon footprint.

 

Comparing apples with pears – ICT vs aviation

The first thing one needs to understand about quantitative claims is that numbers cannot be compared without making sure they represent the same thing. A typical example where that is not the case is an often-cited comparison between the ICT sector and the aviation sector.

So, how do these sectors compare? Using a disheveled approach, you can find numbers that match. However, if you compare apples with apples then a different story is revealed.

The ICT sector’s carbon footprint of 730 million tonnes of CO2-eq almost matches the 800 million tonnes of CO2 emissions from burning fuel across the aviation industry – 80 percent of this associated with travelling. However, that number excludes the production of the fuel, the footprint of airplanes, the operation of airports and high-altitude effects. Moreover, it does not consider that the difference in number of users is huge. Approximately 70 percent of the global population use ICT, but it is estimated that only 10 percent of the global population use aviation services on a yearly basis. The sectors clearly do not compare if scopes are set equal, and especially not in terms of emissions per user. To illustrate this, we calculated for how long time you could use your smartphone before it caused the same emissions as the fuel used per person on a transatlantic return flight (including aviation effects). It turned out to be 50 years – and that even included the use of networks and data center. Clearly it is a great thing to hold your international meetings online when you can.

Even though ICT represents a small share of global carbon emissions, it is our responsibility to reduce its footprint in absolute numbers. The good news is that, to a large extent, the carbon footprint of ICT depends on electricity consumption which is the easiest energy carrier to decarbonize. This holds true for network operations, data center operations and device usage, as well as – perhaps more surprisingly - the other life cycle stages. If the ICT sector and its users switch exclusively to electricity from renewable energy sources, then the carbon footprint could be reduced by as much as 80 percent.

This gives a great opportunity for ICT companies to invest more in renewable energy to decarbonize their business. Already today, many major ICT companies are investing a lot in renewables and taking action to reduce their footprints and that should expand. At Ericsson, for example, we have halved our footprint and are now working towards an SBTi approved 1,5oC decarbonization target.

 

Aviation industry climate emissions

Using a smartphone for fifty years causes the same user emissions as a seat on a transatlantic return flight

 

The digital carbon footprint of ICT users

So, we have discussed the impact of the entire sector, but how much do ICT users themselves impact carbon emissions and what can they do to lower it?   

Firstly, let’s get some numbers right. Streaming and internet surfing do not usually require the electricity levels mentioned in many discussions. For example, streaming a movie for two hours to a large screen every night for a year consumes about 25 percent less electricity than running a modern, energy-efficient refrigerator for a year. And chances are that the tea you drink while watching a movie on your smartphone will use as much electricity as the movie.  Also, surfing the internet on your smartphone for three hours uses about the same amount of electricity as having two 7W LED lamps lit for the same time. Read other comparisons in the digital carbon footprint report.

To make it easier to understand the digital carbon footprint of individual ICT users, we developed three usage profiles, Steve, Shala and Sarah. Steve represents a typical heavy gamer, Sarah a medium user and Shala a smartphone-only user. Assuming Steve, Shala and Sarah have world average carbon footprints of 7000 kg CO2-eq, we found that their digital footprints (including their use of networks and data centers) represent seven, two and 0.6 percent of their respective overall footprints. Interestingly, Steve can reduce his digital carbon footprint to 2 percent simply by using renewable electricity to charge his devices. Read more about our calculations for Steve, Shala and Sarah in the digital carbon footprint report.

 

How can you lower your digital carbon footprint?

Our new friends above show us that the part of your carbon footprint which derives from your ICT activities depends on how you lead your digital life, which devices you have and use, and how the electricity you use is produced.

In emissions, one year of smartphone usage could be compensated for by driving 2 hours less on the highway with a petrol car (or less if you include the production of fuel and the car, and the maintenance of the roads as we do for the smartphone). And as I said, you would need to use your smartphone for fifty years to cause the same level of emissions as the fuel combustion of one overseas return flight.

That said, as laid down in the exponential roadmap for climate action, the situation is critical. We need to reduce carbon footprints wherever we can. So, what can you do to lower your personal digital carbon footprint?

There are two main things. Firstly, you can make a difference by charging your batteries with electricity from renewable sources. Secondly, you should try to use your devices as long as possible before disposing of them. The reason is that a large share of emissions related to the ICT devices occur already during production. With that in mind, you should try to avoid buying more devices than you need, as well as passing on devices when no longer needed and making sure that they are left to formal recycling. In addition small screens needs less energy than large ones so four persons watching a movie over their smartphones use less electricity than one person watching the same movie on the TV screen.

 

Learn more

Visit our quick guide to your digital carbon footprint to learn more about the climate impact of ICT for more aspects of your online life.

If you, as I, want to understand how numbers are derived before accepting them, make sure to check our calculations and data in the background report on the digital carbon footprint report page. And remember, in terms of emissions, what is more important than the footprint is what you use your device for.

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