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Edition #3

In this edition we look at the relationship between limitless data consumption and the associated impacts on environment, and how a conscious approach to using technology can create a more sustainable digital future.

The rise of all-you-can-eat content consumption

In most parts of the developed world internet speeds are now at a level where content consumption can be instantaneous and data usage limits are becoming a thing of the past.

This all-you-can-eat data diet is what large parts of the world’s population are being reared on and it’s been turbo-charged by the proliferation of mobile internet access and the rollout of high-speed mobile networks.

There's no such thing as a free lunch

It’s tempting to think that the only (and far from insignificant) consequences of excessive internet usage and content consumption are things like the negative mental effects that we highlighted in Mindset editions 1 and 2. However, there’s a much lesser reported consequence of this all-you-can-eat diet - its environmental impact.    

How the internet impacts the environment

Media and technology organisations for the most part have done an excellent job at supressing the amount of coverage that the internet’s negative environmental impact gets. The stark reality is that the internet and the platforms that depend on it to operate are damaging the planet to an extent that many people are blissfully unaware of.

To illustrate, internet usage contributes a comparable amount of carbon emissions to the aviation industry (both are reported to be around 2% each of total emissions). This is expected to increase to around 10% by 2030, as more of the world’s population is connected and content consumption per capita continues to soar.  

Digital environmental offenders

There are sectors in the digital industry where the dominating business models are those that rely on constant connectivity and huge amounts of content consumption.

Consider two sectors to illustrate this problem: Firstly, Video-On-Demand streaming services. Netflix has over 200m subscribers worldwide. Netflix users alone collectively streamed approximately 203,840,000 hours of content per day during lockdown periods last year.

To support this scale of consumption, a server infrastructure must be in place that enables the instantaneous access that Netflix's (and its competitors') business has been built on and its paying subscribers have come to expect. For that server infrastructure to operate, it needs to be powered by an energy source. Despite significant progress being made with the creation of 'green' data warehouses powered by renewable energy sources, they are still the exception rather than the rule.

Secondly: Cryptocurrencies. These rely on networked machines being constantly connected to the internet to mine vast amounts of data and then trade currencies automatically as a result. Like VOD, they are powered by extensive hosting infrastructures and despite their uptake from the public currently being lower, they require much higher levels of computational power. Currency mining is also largely autonomous, meaning that sessions often last way beyond any binge-watching session that a human could endure. Bitcoin mining alone is currently estimated to produce approximately 37m tons of carbon dioxide per year, the same as New Zealand's total output. By 2024, cryptocurrency mining in China alone is expected to use the same amount of energy per year as the population of Italy does.

Intervention is needed

Despite some ambitious emissions reduction targets being set by the UN there is minimal legislation currently in place that penalises and / or incentivises technology and media companies to use infrastructures that are powered by sustainable energy sources. Were governments to collectively hold organisations to account and incentivise them for good behaviour, meaningful progress can be made to make greener infrastructures more commonplace in the future.

But this won’t create a sustainable digital future on its own. Individuals, too, have a responsibility to consider their own digital footprint and its relationship with their environmental one. This can only be achieved through more widespread awareness and education about how technology’s use impacts the environment to create more mindful digital behaviour.

Very few people would respond favourably to restrictions being imposed by governments and / or ISPs on how much, or how often, or when they can use the internet, so instilling a sense of collective responsibility for the planet’s prosperity is vital.

Brands and content creators also have a responsibility to the planet

It is also easy to demonise 'big tech' on account of their collective contribution to the problem. But is is also the responsibility of all organisations, be they commercial or not for profit, to consider the impact that their digital experiences and content are having. They need to have both the processes and knowledge in place to interrogate if what's being done so in a way that's conscious and mindful of its environmental impact. 

A more mindful use of digital 

There are a growing number of institutions that are trying to combat the problem by raising awareness of digital media’s impact on the environment and working with key industry players on how they can take actions to improve. Better measurement of precisely how many carbon emissions certain activities produce is a complex area that is growing and is seeing an encouraging rise in collaboration between academic, public and private institutions (DIMPACT).

There are also some interesting tools that aim to offset digital media’s environmental impact by redistributing resources to environmentally beneficial activities. Ecosia is one such example; the search engine that generates income and uses it to plant trees in over 9000 different locations globally.

Other tools help people to make more conscious decisions about how sustainably they’re living overall. ‘Good on you’ curates sustainable and ethical fashion choices to make it easier to make responsible purchase decisions. ‘Ecocred’ helps people build eco-friendly habits and become more knowledgeable about key sustainability topics to reinforce them. UK based ‘Refill’ encourages less plastic use by recommending restaurants, cafes and shops that champion reusing of materials to reduce unnecessary plastic creation.

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