Our digital habits, how much they consume and how to improve them

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Surfing the Internet, sending an email, making a videocall, designing a dynamic website. The digital world consumes a lot of energy. It is up to us to be more responsible.  

When we talk about sustainability, it takes in many different issues, from raising production system efficiency to the retrieval of waste material, but we seldom talk about energy consumption in relation to the Internet and to our digital habits. However, if we quantify their overall  CO2 footprint, they are equal to a single nation - for instance, the web consumes only slightly less than China, the United States and India, ranking in fourth place, in terms of emissions.

In order to tackle this problem seriously and constructively, we need to know the subject through and through, and to combat misinformation. For example, one of the first myths that needs to be dispelled is that of the Cloud. Often seen as a cloud of data floating around in the ether, it’s actually just a collection of data centres made up of thousands of servers that consume electricity (as much as 15,000 homes per centre, a small city in fact), and that’s not counting the water needed for the cooling plants. Moreover, in order to avoid cuts to services caused by potential blackouts or unforeseen circumstances, server farms may also be connected to large batteries, similar to car batteries or diesel-run generators. In practice, we are storing data on computers far from home that use up a huge amount of energy in order to exist. Even the World Wide Web, which might seem like an “abstract” connection, has hardware that translates into a data centre connected to thousands of servers thanks to an infrastructure of cables, often lying at the bottom of the ocean, and routers and switches that make the transfer possible. In terms of figures, in 2020, 900,000 km of sub-sea cables were operational, equal to 22 times the length of the Equator. All this allows us to send messages and make “wireless” video calls, but it comes at a cost. The problem lies in the fact that even an email consumes energy - one 1MB email emits around 19 grams of  CO2 to be precise. The most polluting activities, however, are mining, i.e. the production of electronic currency such as Bitcoin, streaming music and videos, and live business calls.

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Over the last year, sustainability has also been taken on board by the design world (the new Formafantasma website is a prime example) and a number of projects and services are currently available for working out one’s own consumption and taking action. We have attempted to put together some suggestions and triggers for helping us cut down our consumption.  

We mentioned the emissions released by emails above, but storing them also implies an energy cost. One suggestion is to behave the way we do at home and operate “differentiated collections” - making time to delete useless emails, blocking unwanted contacts and only using the Cloud for storing important material of which copies are needed.  Live online meetings are another problem. It can be frustrating not seeing one’s own interlocutor, but 96% of the energy can be saved by not using the camera. This ought to persuade us to plan meetings more efficiently, as well as the ways in which they take place. Another fundamental issue in the design world, given the online portfolios, the company pages and the e-commerce services, are the Internet sites. First of all, we should be opting for green hosting services. The best-known ones are unfortunately not, but the Green Web Foundation has put together a directory of 334 companies in more than 26 countries. When it comes to designing the pages, all the uploaded multimedia files must be of the right weight and size. An oversized image uses more energy (and more time) to upload. For the same reason, we should have a clean HTML code and use JavaScript as little as possible. Even fonts matter - it’s best to use the one supplied by the platform and therefore already on the system, but for those really desperate for a customised font, it’s best to go for modern web formats such as WOFF and WOFF2. Getting even more technical, content delivery networks (CDN), which cut the distance by which the data travel every time a page is uploaded,  can be useful, along with server caching, which stops the pages of a website being generated with every visit, memorising a static version.

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If a website already exists online, there are other tools that can help; one of these is Website Carbon, a digital carbon emissions calculator for websites. It uses an algorithm to work out the different values, from data traffic to energy consumption in uploading and suggests various solutions for improvement. One of these, which should only be considered after an analysis of consumption and a plan for its reduction, is carbon offsetting,  i.e. embarking on projects geared to curbing CO2 emissions alongside business ones. One of the most prosaic examples of this is planting, which must however be associated with a genuine reduction in emissions in order to really make a difference.

As we can see, real sustainability is intrinsically bound up with the digital world and we need to learn to be more responsible consumers, just as we are with products.

22 November 2021