The Digital World and CO₂: Mails also Cause Greenhouse Gases

(With permission from the author to republish)

Hardly anyone who uses digital media thinks about energy consumption and the resulting impact on climate. That’s because we don’t know exactly what digital life, from email to movie streaming, consumes and causes. But there is some evidence that it generates an enormous amount of greenhouse gases.

Yoshua Bengio is from Canada, lives in Paris, and received the 2018 Turing Prize for his research on artificial intelligence. The computer scientist sees the use of the digital world and algorithms skyrocketing. Yet, Bengio says, no one is concerned about how much energy they consume and how much greenhouse gases they produce. To get a feel for that and come to a possible regulation, you have to start measuring Bengio’s findings.

Thus, was born the idea of Code Carbon, developed at his Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) Comet. It’s free, open-source software that, once downloaded, estimates the environmental impact of developing software and machine learning systems. Today, there are no standards for tracking energy use in software. There are only general estimates. No one knows precisely what digital life consumes and causes.

Vague estimates are based on the energy consumption of Japan, also in terms of CO₂ emissions. The web, between high-tech gadgets, servers, and algorithms, thus ranks among the most important industrialized countries in terms of CO₂ emissions. It is expected to produce about one billion 850 million cubic meters per year. That means 400 grams for each Internet user. According to the Global Carbon Project, the web ranks fourth behind China, the U.S., and India. The use of social networks, video calls, chats, and online games also has a CO₂ footprint. Video streaming alone accounts for around 300 million tons of CO₂ worldwide – more than is generated in Spain in a year.

Four billion Internet users

In England, for example, it has been calculated that avoiding insignificant mails such as thank you, etc., is equivalent to saving 3300 diesel cars. Today, more than four billion people use the Internet in various ways, from mail to movie streaming. Computers, laptops, and screens consume about 40 percent of the total energy. Servers and data centers, the infrastructure of the web, account for another 30 percent. According to Lancaster University, Internet users thus account for 3.7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. However, the web has an opportunity. The volume of data and usage is growing massively, while energy consumption is growing much more slowly. The drive for efficiency and energy conservation affects every aspect of technology.

With a smartphone today, you can record a very crystal-clear video without the battery running out afterward. A short time ago, that would have been impossible. However, the biggest problem is that data traffic is also constantly growing, and the need to process it is increasing. It is, therefore, necessary to use the algorithms in a certain way to reduce the energy demand.

Choosing to send an SMS is easily the most environmentally friendly way to stay in touch with others. Each message generates just 0.014 grams of CO₂, a tweet 0.2 grams, but a mail four grams of CO₂, according to a BBC estimate. That’s an average size because a lot depends on what you send: Gifs, emojis, and images have a much larger footprint than text. The CO₂ footprint of a one-minute phone call is slightly larger than that of a text message, while video calls cause a much larger one.

Those who use Google, meanwhile, contribute to producing 12,542 tons of CO₂ per day worldwide. According to the French think tank The Shift Project, movie streaming, whether video or Netflix movies, causes 300 million tons of CO₂ per year, just under one percent of global emissions. Half an hour of Netflix thus causes 1.6 kg of CO₂, which corresponds to a car trip of just under ten kilometers. The International Energy Agency contradicts these figures. It assumes that half an hour of Netflix only causes between 25 and 57 grams of CO₂. About half of the TV’s electricity is consumed by the infrastructure required by services like Netflix or YouTube, which reach their users worldwide. The number of users is 180 million (Netflix) on the one hand and 1.8 billion (YouTube) on the other.

Film streaming causes 300 million tons of CO² per year, just under one percent of global emissions.

Quality and bandwidth

Movies also play an essential role on Facebook, with 2.7 billion monthly users. Video material is uploaded to the social network every day, 65 percent of the time from smartphones. The volume is so high that reducing energy consumption without sacrificing quality is a considerable challenge. For Netflix, the biggest problem is to use less bandwidth while maintaining quality and resolution. This makes streaming smoother and more consistent, even if the user’s connection is not among the best; but it consumes more because more computing power is needed to compress movies and TV series.

Facebook has its own data centers; Netflix uses Amazon instead. Amazon has the largest market share, followed by Microsoft and Google. There are about eight million active data centers globally, and the three giants operate several hundreds of them. From these centers around the world come all the online services we use every day – email, chat, social networks. They are the nerve centers of the network and consume between one and two percent of the energy produced worldwide.

Florian Fink – German Catholic Newsletter

Article submitted and translated from German to English by:

Sr. Elisabeth Műeller ASC – Liechtenstein, Schaan