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16 April 2019

Streaming Is the New Way of Flying - How Digital Consumption Affects the Climate

If you think digital technology is "green", think again.  The ICT sector could already account for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2025.

Streaming is the new way of flying - how digital consumption affects the climate
by Thomas Fuster, nzz.ch, 16 April 2019 - translation

What is digital is nowhere near green. The environmental costs of information and communication technology (ICT) are mostly underestimated. An important driver for a rapidly increasing power consumption is the streaming of videos.

Watching a video on the go for 10 minutes needs the same
amount of power as an electric oven for 5 minutes in full
(Image: Matt Cardy / Getty)
In the climate discussion, the roles are clearly divided: on the side of the "bad guys" are heavy industry, transport and agriculture. By contrast, most service providers are among the "good guys" because their products - such as insurance or loans - are more of an intangible nature. Information and communication technology (ICT) is usually assigned to the good side in this classification. Digitization is considered part of the solution and not part of the climate problem. After all, the electronic gadgets are getting smaller and smaller. And the services used on displays somehow seem virtual - and therefore low in pollutants.

More harmful than aviation

But the matter is more complex. This is shown by a study by the French think tank "The Shift Project" . The organization has tried to measure the environmental footprint of the supposedly clean ICT industry. It concludes that the environmental impact of the digital economy is constantly underestimated. The reason for this is not only the progressive miniaturization of the devices, but also the "invisibility" of the infrastructure used - a phenomenon that is compounded by the growing availability of services in the so-called data cloud. Cloud computing is making the physical reality of digital products even more difficult to perceive.

The pollutant balance of the industry is not so harmlessly cloudy. For example, the ICT sector's share of global greenhouse gas emissions is estimated at 3.7%; this is almost twice as much as the contribution of civil aviation (2%) and just under half of the pollutant emissions of all passenger cars and motorcycles (8%). Above all, the authors of the study are worried about the rapid increase in digital energy consumption by about 9% per year. If this trend continues and the data volume on the Internet continues to increase by around 30% per year, the ICT sector would already account for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2025.

What are the most important reasons for the rapidly increasing energy consumption of the industry? Four drivers are mentioned. First, the world's growing number of smartphones and their ever more energy-intensive features at around 11% per year. Second, the proliferation of digitally-connected peripherals in leisure and home, be it fitness bracelets or complex surveillance systems. Third, the rise of the Internet of industrial things. And fourth, the explosion of traffic, primarily due to offers from international tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu or Alibaba.

Energy intensity increases

While the energy intensity of global gross domestic product is currently declining by 1.8% per year, the opposite is true for the ICT industry. Their energy intensity increases by 4%. This means that the consumption of 1 Euro of digital technology causes an energy consumption that is 37% higher than in the year 2010. The fact that the digital devices become more and more efficient, changes little, because at the same time the use increases. For example, while the battery capacity of smartphones has increased by 50% over the past five years. The frequency of charging has remained constant during this period, especially as the devices are now simply being used for longer; a typical example of a rebound effect.

The estimation of climate damage is associated with much uncertainty. Nevertheless, the study shows that supposedly unsuspected activities are associated with environmental costs. One example is the streaming of videos, which accounts for over 80% of the increase in traffic on the Internet. The pastime popular among young generations in particular requires 1,500 times more energy than the normal operation of a smartphone. Watching a video over the cloud for ten minutes consumes the same amount of power as sending non-stop emails with attached files for five hours. Or if someone keeps a full-force 2000-watt electric heater in heating mode for five minutes.

But can one blame the rising power consumption of the Internet on the ICT industry?  Jean-Marc Hensch, CEO of Swico, the business association of the Swiss ICT and online industry., is doubtful. According to Hensch, if a journalist sends an e-mail, the associated power consumption should rather be blamed on the media sector. Ultimately, the ICT industry only provides the devices to enable consumers to communicate electronically or store data. Accordingly, it is questionable if the "climate strikes" emphasize that a small number of 100 companies account for three quarters of CO2 emissions.

In the sights of environmental organizations

In fact, behind the power consumption are ultimately always responsible consumers who demand more data volume, or new smartphones whose production also require rare earth metals . To blame the ICT companies falls short. Nevertheless, companies are increasingly targeted by environmental organizations. Greenpeace, for example, publishes a ranking on the environmental policy of large ICT companies under the title "The Guide to Greener Electronics". As far as transparency is concerned, Amazon gets little praise. Meanwhile, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung are accused of intentionally shortening the life of their products by making repairs or upgrades unnecessarily difficult. The times when digital was equated with green seem to be over for good.

Original article in German:

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