Do you know the digital carbon footprint of your brand? To date, climate-change conversations have primarily focused on the impact of physical waste, resource use, and emissions growth. But what about the impact of our online activities? If the Internet were a country, it would be the 7th largest polluter in the world. While one knock-on effect of the pandemic was reduced pollution levels (the induced lockdowns resulted in blue skies and clean air), it also accelerated our dependency on online activities, exacerbating the issue of digital pollution. In Southeast Asia alone, 40 million new users came online in 2020 compared to an average of 20 million over the previous five years, with hourly internet users nearly doubling during lockdowns and now remaining ten percentage points higher than pre-COVID times.
Every online interaction we make, each click, thumbs-up, or thumbs down, quietly contributes to climate change. Video streaming alone accounts for a large proportion of the internet’s carbon footprint, with our digital activities now emitting 4% of total carbon emissions worldwide – roughly as much as planes – and this is increasing by 9% per year. It is estimated that offsetting the increase in internet usage in 2020 alone requires a forest twice the size of Portugal, enough water to fill 317,200 Olympic-size swimming pools, and a land footprint the size of Los Angeles.
At the current rate, web traffic is set to double by 2022, with mobile internet users expected to jump from 3.8 billion in 2020 to 5 billion by 2025. While the world is becoming more interconnected than ever, the downside is that our reliance on power-guzzling data centers will only increase in the future. As more products, activities, and industries move online (cryptocurrencies, NFTs – the next big thing, and so on), the impact of online experiences will only amplify. For instance, NFTs are usually bought and sold on the Ethereum blockchain platform, which requires thousands of computers to validate transactions, consuming as much electricity per year as the entire country of Libya. Although the Ethereum platform recently pledged to become more energy-efficient, the power needed to sustain the broader crypto market could still wreak environmental havoc and even raise the Earth’s temperature by two degrees. With this in mind, Elon Musk recently reversed his decision to accept Bitcoin payments for Teslas, citing concerns over the ‘rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for bitcoin mining.’
While digital technologies are helping us to better tackle climate change, they are leaving behind their own ecological footprint and posing an alarming threat to the environment. So what’s the answer? Companies need digital sustainability to ensure the sustainable use of digital technologies in achieving business goals without damaging the environment. Consumers are already demanding this: 80% of Southeast Asian consumers claim they value sustainability and have made lifestyle changes to become more eco-friendly. A factory chimney or a polluting car is easy to label as unsustainable, but how can we label invisible digital technologies? By ensuring all digital technologies are used sustainably by both companies and their customers. Provided below are six recommendations businesses should take in order to become digitally sustainable (the list below is not exhaustive, but indicative as companies evolve their own best practices with time):
Make your digital infrastructure sustainable. The first step is to measure your website's carbon footprint by leveraging tools such as the Website Carbon Calculator. You may be surprised to see the environmental damage you’re causing. If you're developing a more sustainable product, how will your online experience match up? Volkswagen Canada opted for a climate-friendly web design to promote its new electric car. Individuals visiting the ID4 webpage can choose between the typical website experience and a less data-heavy interface that uses black-and-white images and simply formatted text. The automaker’s low-carbon website is 50% cleaner than the standard ID4 page.Data centers produce approximately 3.8% of global carbon emissions. Cloud providers have made ambitious commitments to reduce their adverse impact on the environment. By 2030, Google will operate carbon-free, while Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft have pledged to use 100% renewable energy to power their data center facilities. Per Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, claims this will mean “every email you send through Gmail, every question you ask Google Search, every YouTube video you watch, and every route you take using Google Maps, is supplied by clean energy every hour of every day.” Multi-cloud workload management tools such as Yellowdog can also be used to meet your carbon emission goals. The vendor claims to help companies reduce their carbon impact by an average of 52% compared to on-premise solutions.
As COVID-19 induced lockdowns forced the world to a virtual standstill, we came to fully realize the importance of technology in our lives: we can stay connected with not only our jobs and essential local services, but also with friends and loved ones all over the world from the comfort of our homes. The pandemic also created a shift in how we think about sustainability. As we stayed home, we saw clear rivers, quiet roads, and peaceful skies. Just when we thought we’d cracked the climate change code, it came to light that our increased digital activities also have a significant impact on the environment. We haven’t solved the problem simply by staying at home. Have we, in fact, only made it worse? We are now fast approaching the tipping point in the digital sphere and the environmental implications are more urgent than ever for today’s brands. Brands that use digital technologies sustainably will not only reduce the harm being done to the planet, but also gain consumer trust and loyalty in a world where climate change is fast becoming key in creating new business value.