SERIES: DIGITAL SUSTAINABILITY – Electronic Devices
These are your household electronic devices that leach power even when they are not in use. A majority of us leave these devices on standby. Switching off these ‘vampire devices’ could save a UK household £147 every year on electricity bills.
In April 2021, the warming had already reached 419.28 parts per million (ppm). On May 5, 2022 it was 419.68 ppm according to co2.earth.
While anthropogenic emissions are still increasing (we had already reached 1.2C in April 2021 from pre- industrial time and warming has increases 1.1C since 1850 and 1900), their growth rate was slower between 2010 and 2019 than between 2000 and 2009. However, in order to limit climate change to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels (as agreed in the Paris Agreement), greenhouse gas emissions need to reach their highest peak before 2025. And by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 43%, according to the report. Unfortunately, that is not where we are headed currently. In fact, according to United Nations Secretary General António Guterres “Current climate pledges would mean a 14% increase in emissions, and most major emitters are not taking the steps needed to fulfill even these inadequate promises.”
Emissions have increased in every region but are distributed unevenly both in present day and as cummulative emissions since 1850s, highlighted in the chart below. They have mostly come from developed countries as a result of unsustainable energy and land use. The least developed and developing countries are the lowest contributers to climate change but they will be impacted the most, especially island nations that are already starting to face sea level rise.
“Climate change is the result of more than a century of unsustainable energy and land use, lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production,” said IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Jim Skea in a written statement published with the report. “This report shows how taking action now can move us towards a fairer, more sustainable world.”
There is some good news. The cost of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have progressively dropped due to increased efforts in new development and scaling up. Renewables are already far cheaper than other sources, as the chart below indicates – cost of solar energy has decreased by about 85% and wind has reduced by 50% over the last decade.
However, current climate action is still insufficient and projected global GHG emissions from countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) announced prior to COP 26 would make it likely that warming will exceed 1.5C, and furthermore, make it harder to limit it to below 2C after 2030, as indicated in the chart below.
Different scenarios show that more aggressive actions need to be undertaken to decrease warming as can be seen in the chart below, which indicates 8 response scenarios. The light blue (C1) is the most aggressive and will result in the least warming, while the red (C8) is less aggressive and will lead to more warming.
Mitigation pathways that limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius will require immediate action. The chart below shows modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5C and 2C. This would need deep, rapid and sustained emission reductions.
The chart shows greenhouse gas (GHG), carbon dioxide (CO2) methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions under various scenarios. The IPCC calls these illustrative mitigation emissions pathways (IMPs), where the red shows the pathway if current policies are continued, while the blue indicates pathways if more aggressive policies that limit global warming to 1.5°C are implemented.
“We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. “I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries. There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective. If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”
“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F),” Co-Chair Jim Skea added. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
The following chart shows the sectors where emissions come from, with mitigation pathways that can get us to net zero.
According to the press release, “Limiting global warming will require major transitions in the energy sector. This will involve a substantial reduction in fossil fuel use, widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency, and use of alternative fuels (such as hydrogen). Cities and other urban areas also offer significant opportunities for emissions reductions. These can be achieved through lower energy consumption (such as by creating compact, walkable cities), electrification of transport in combination with low-emission energy sources, and enhanced carbon uptake and storage using nature. There are options for established, rapidly growing and new cities.”
“Reducing emissions in industry will involve using materials more efficiently, reusing and recycling products and minimising waste. For basic materials, including steel, building materials and chemicals, low- to zero-greenhouse gas production processes are at their pilot to near-commercial stage. This sector accounts for about a quarter of global emissions. Achieving net zero will be challenging and will require new production processes, low and zero emissions electricity, hydrogen, and, where necessary, carbon capture and storage. Agriculture, forestry, and other land use can provide large-scale emissions reductions and also remove and store carbon dioxide at scale. However, land cannot compensate for delayed emissions reductions in other sectors. Response options can benefit biodiversity, help us adapt to climate change, and secure livelihoods, food and water, and wood supplies,” the press release adds.
“The global temperature will stabilise when carbon dioxide emissions reach net zero. For 1.5°C (2.7°F), this means achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions globally in the early 2050s; for 2°C (3.6°F), it is in the early 2070s,” concludes the press release.
The chart below provides an overview of mitigation options and technologies, as well as their estimated ranges of costs and potential in 2030. There are many options available now in all sectors that help reduce net emissions. There are also synergies and trade-offs between sectoral and system mitigation options and the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
According to the written statement,”Accelerated and equitable climate action in mitigating and adapting to climate change impacts is critical to sustainable development. Some response options can absorb and store carbon and, at the same time, help communities limit the impacts associated with climate change. For example, in cities, networks of parks and open spaces, wetlands and urban agriculture can reduce flood risk and reduce heat-island effects. Mitigation in industry can reduce environmental impacts and increase employment and business opportunities. Electrification with renewables and shifts in public transport can enhance health, employment, and equity”.
What can we, the people, do? Ultimately, our actions can lower demand for energy intensive, carbon emitting technologies and products. Demand-side mitigation has huge potential and can be achieved through changes in three main areas: socio-cultural factors, infrastructure design and use, and end-use technology adoption by 2050.
“Having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behavior can result in a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This offers significant untapped potential,” said IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Priyadarshi Shukla, in the written statement. “The evidence also shows that these lifestyle changes can improve our health and wellbeing.”
Buildings will need to become more efficient. “We see examples of zero energy or zero-carbon buildings in almost all climates,” said Skea. “Action in this decade is critical to capture the mitigation potential of buildings.”
What a long way we have come from those early websites that were hard coded by experts! Modern websites not only come with a host of options but most importantly, they can be easily constructed by anyone with a little bit of understanding about how the internet works.
And as we well and truly settle into the digital age, the website is going to be as ubiquitous as the corner-shop of the past. Except, now you can animate your products, show videos, and even sell online with a much lower cost than having a physical premises.
There is however another cost. That of the impact of your website on the climate, which, while not as humungous as other sources of carbon emissions, is still something to consider. Especially, as more and more of us spend more time on the internet for business and pleasure.
And our own websites produce carbon as well. Median desktop page transfer size increased by 2165.5KB between 2015 and 2022 – an increase of 70%. Median mobile page transfer size increased by 1974KB during the same period – an increase of 127%.
Website Carbon tells us that each time you visit google.com, 0.09 g of CO2e is released into the atmosphere. Granted, this is not a lot. In fact, this is less than that emitted by the Greenpeace website. Both Google and Greenpeace are working towards using green energy. But that’s not the point here. Think of all the websites out there combined, with more coming up each day.
The first ever website was published 30 years ago, on August 6, 1991, by physicist Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland. It was called the World Wide Web (W3). Today, it is estimated that 1.7 billion websites exist, (some sources say 1.88 billion see figure) but this number fluctuates, as new ones are launched, or others are closed. Even so, the world wide web is gigantic, and 4.5 billion people are now able to interact on the internet. Each day 576,000 new websites are created.
According to Website Carbon the average website produces 1.76g of CO2e per page view, which means that a site with 50,000 page views per month emits 1,056kg of CO2e annually. This is just the average. The more complex a website is, the more energy it needs to function. This means more carbon emissions, which are not just calculated by the size of a webpage but include the energy source used by the data centre, how much energy is used to transfer and process data, the efficiency of the user’s device, and how the webpage behaves as it loads. As we add on images and videos, webpages become heavier, less efficient and emit more carbon.
So, what can we do? The most important thing is to use a hosting company that uses green energy. Plus, move your own energy consumption to renewable energy as well.
There are also ways to make the webpage lighter. Images are perhaps the largest contributors to the weight of the website, so moving from JPEG and PNG to lighter formats such as SVG is one way of decreasing that size. Many optimizing tools are also available that help you to reduce your image size – and several of these are free.
Many companies that have finally ventured on the road to climate and environment consciousness are starting by making their websites as light as possible, with very few or no images, reduced use of colour and by streamlining the coding used. Some websites hark back to the original website created in 1991 with just a white background and text, producing only 0.39kg of CO2e per year. There are still very few climate-friendly websites, but as people get more and more involved in digital sustainability, there is likely to be a change.
To me it seems though that we need to come up with more innovative ways of decreasing our digital carbon footprint (Read Stop sending thank you emails), and we are not there yet. The trend of making websites completely bare is in itself an unsustainable trend. It won’t catch on and it won’t last. It is very well for Elon Musk and Volkswagon to have ONE of their websites as lighter versions using less electricity, but their other websites continue along the same lines. We need to come up with better and inventive ways of ensuring that our digital life does not have the same results as our fossil fuel consumption did.
Almost 1,400 individuals and companies (including Google) have signed the Sustainable Web Manifesto since 2019, committing themselves to create a greener and sustainable internet. But what does this really mean? Are we all going to start creating starkly bare websites? I am not so sure. What I do know is that as more and more people get access to the internet, and more people create their own websites, this is a good time to at least start the conversation about digital sustainability.
Twenty years ago, when I started working in environmental conservation and climate change, most people looked at me quizzically when I told them what I did for a living. For many, protecting the environment was just getting rid of garbage on the street, and climate change was not even on the radar.
Today, the situation is entirely different. Climate change has found new activists, some so much younger than I was when I started on this journey. Two years of lockdowns have brought nature closer to us or have brought us closer to nature. Either way, quite a large proportion of the populace has finally taken an interest in the natural environment and the fact that we face unprecedented changes in our climate – all of which will resonate in our living spaces, through the food we eat, and the things we buy for years to come.
The pandemic confined us all to our homes, making us more dependent on digital systems as we tried to maintain some semblance of continuity in our lives.
Some are happy that our overuse of energy resources went down as we travelled less. But in the last decade or so, our inherent consumerism has been coupled with our need for attention. While the first has been catered to by online shopping during the pandemic, the second has also taken off through social media apps. Everyone now wants their fame, which is now expected to be longer than fifteen minutes.
But the digital environment also has environmental and climate costs, and this cost went up drastically during the pandemic. A new study led by Yale University estimated that internet usage increased by 40% during globally following the lockdown from January through March 2020. Netflix and Zoom also saw increases in use.
According to the study, this resulted in a demand for almost 42.6 million megawatt-hours of additional electricity for data transmission and to power data centres. Our digital footprint is not just about the emails we send or the posts we make on social media. Buildings are required to house the hardware; data from computer networks, cloud services and digital applications all need energy.
The online activities of over 4 billion active internet users have a cost:
Obviously, there are a multitude of ways to impact the climate through digital use, including direct carbon emission through manufacturing, use and disposal of technology. These are the ubiquitous gadgets we use but also mobile networks, enterprise networks and data centres. Manufacturing, shipping, powering, and cooling, all require huge amounts of energy.
Our online habits also contribute to carbon emissions (Sources: Earth.org and the BBC)
Loading a website 1.76g of CO2 on average (this can go up to 10g if the website has videos etc)
Emails 0.3g for spam, 4g for regular email, 50g for email with attachments or photos
Instagram 42g of CO2(average 28 minutes of daily scrolling)
Facebook 12g of CO2 annually
Netflix/YouTube 36g of CO2 per hour
And we are just getting started. Just like there was a lack of analysis of the impacts of social media applications on our lives, there is very little analytical data available on the impact of ICT on the environment and climate.
The digital environment is a gamut of processes and actions, from extracting rare earth elements, to manufacturing and transportation of technological equipment, to us the consumers increasingly communicating with the world through our devices. There is some level of information on the impacts on environment and climate change for some of the steps, but not for all. It is also true that the overall effect is not as much as the aviation industry, transportation, and many others. However, we still need to understand the impacts of the entire digital system, ensure it follows the rules of sustainability, and plays its role in the circular economy.
Decreasing our electricity use and using renewable energy is step one. Everything we do when using the internet, from social media, music, emails, video streaming and even ecommerce use electricity, which is not always renewable.
What else can we do?
• Make your video streaming climate friendly: shut off open tabs, turn off auto play, avoid using video when you can do with audio
• Power down your computer when away
• Be conscious of vampire power: Plugged in but powered down devices/ devices on standby mode consume ¼ of residential energy
• Dim your monitor: If possible, from 100% to 70%
• Do not be in a hurry to change IT equipment
• Change your email habits: Unsubscribe from unused newsletters, limit reply all, and finally,