What is digital pollution?

The environmental impact of our digital habits and what we can do about it.

Words by: S'able Labs
Images by: S'able Labs

You might be thinking, ‘what is digital pollution?’ To sum it up, it’s how our digital activities affect our carbon footprint. Be it emails, streaming films or even just a simple Google search, it all adds up in varying ways.

According to the sustainable web manifesto of 2021, if the internet were a nation, it’d be the world’s seventh-largest polluter. And if the world continues at the same pace, the IT sector will be responsible for 14% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2040.

These carbon emissions are created by the amount of electricity needed to perform any digital task. On an individual scale, these tasks are tiny. But when you factor in that 53% of the world’s population, 4.1 billion people, use the internet, the sheer scale adds up. 

Speaking to the BBC, Mike Hazas, a researcher at Lancaster University, pointed out that “The carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, according to some estimates. It is similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally. And these emissions are predicted to double by 2025.”

Behind the emissions

When it comes to digital activities, one of the key causes of emissions is the data centers used to power these activities. As you’d expect for a central hub of internet activity, data centers are known for being extremely energy-intensive. According to Energy.gov, These spaces often use between 10 and 50 times the amount of energy used to power a typical office building. As a whole, these buildings account for 2% of the United States’ total electricity use. 

But data centers, while still using a heavy amount of energy, have stayed stagnant since 2015, whereas internet usage and data center workloads have nearly tripled, according to the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union. This stagnation is due to a push for efficiency from the top three web hosting services — Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure — who use tactics such as installing custom cooling systems, automating wherever possible and running virtual machines on their servers to limit downtime. 

But this looks set to come undone at some point, with the rise in home working placing different demands on home internet. Speaking to Wired, Dale Sartor, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory staff scientist, said “I don’t think anybody envisions a reduction in the growth of our appetite for computation. So the chances we’re going to see an explosion in energy use sometime in the next couple of decades is pretty high.”

This growth is also coupled with the fact that the three providers have yet to commit to decarbonizing their centers, instead using Renewable Energy Credits, or RECs for short. Wired points out that “RECs are how companies like Google and Microsoft can claim their data centers are powered 100 percent by renewables while still being connected to grids that use fossil fuels. In reality, only a fraction of each company’s energy comes directly from solar or wind installations; the rest comes from RECs.”

What you can do about digital pollution as a consumer

While data centers are an important part of this issue, there’s little to nothing consumers can do about that side of the equation. What we can do is change our personal habits in small ways. One key way is how we search. We’re accustomed to Google now. At this point, it’s likely your default search engine. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t green alternatives. 

Here’s where Ecosia steps in. Founded by Christian Kroll in 2009, the company uses a unique business model, sending 80% of its profits (47.1% of its income) towards tree-building projects. With a consistent green focus, Ecosia’s servers have run on 100% renewable energy since 2018 as well as supporting reforestation projects across a multitude of countries in Europe, South America and Africa. 

Elsewhere, an easy shift is using your tech for longer. A study from the University of Edinburgh found that using a single computer for six years instead of four years allows users to avoid the equivalent of 190kg of carbon emissions.

While you can’t control data center’s use of fossil fuels, you can do your part by avoiding cloud services by storing your photos and documents on a separate hard drive instead. 

The small changes to make a big difference

Sending fewer emails is another way to cut down. Energy company OVO discovered that if every adult in the UK sent one less email — think of the largely superfluous “thank you” message as one we could skip — we’d save 16,433 tonnes of carbon every year. For a concrete comparison, this number is comparable to taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road. Other small changes for emails include not adding large attachments, unsubscribing from newsletters we don’t read and avoiding mass emailing. 

The most eco-friendly method of messaging is actually SMS with each text creating only 0.014g of CO2e. Private messaging apps like WhatsApp are closer to emails in terms of emissions. A phone call is in between these two methods, coming out slightly better than a private messaging app but far better than a video conferencing call. A 2012 study found out that a five-hour zoom call with participants from different countries would create roughly between 4kg and 215kg CO2e. However, this figure is just 7% of the emission that would’ve been created had the meeting been in person. 

When finding out about new things that are harming the planet, it can be easy to stick our collective heads in the sand and feel overwhelmed by the huge numbers and predictions. However, avoiding digital pollution can be as simple as using Ecosia instead of Google and not sending that extra email. In short, it’s something we can all do and be a part of.