Whether it’s a conference call with your team at work, posting a selfie on social media or streaming your favourite show, millions of Europeans take part in digital activities every day. And when we were all stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic – having virtual drinks with friends after a day of remote working, watching uplifting videos on social media, and reading news of wild animals roaming deserted city streets – it felt like life had moved almost entirely online. Now, normality may have gradually returned, but our digital lifestyles are here to stay.
As we work from home more often instead of commuting, and opt for online meetings instead of taking an international flight, it may seem that this boom in internet use is helping to bring emissions down. In fact, the European Commission reported that when many countries went into lockdown in 2020, emissions from aviation fell by almost 64% compared to the previous year.
However, surprising as that may seem, in the EU, emissions from digital technologies are actually comparable to emissions from the aviation sector. So, is it time to think about the environmental impact of our online activity?
The internet never stops
We need to look at the flipside of our digital lifestyle, says Belgian European Climate Pact Ambassador Frédéric Donck, President of Digital Goes Green – an NGO committed to redesigning digital services with a green mindset. “Digital is good – it reduces travel and consumption. However, using streaming services has an impact on the environment too. And that cancels out any reduction in travel.”
This is because of our reliance on energy-hungry data centres – huge warehouses full of powerful computers (servers) that are always on, processing our every digital move. These computers need massive amounts of electricity to power them so that we can send emails, scroll social media, or play a video game online with a friend who lives abroad. And as they generate a lot of heat, the systems used to keep them cool guzzle a lot of energy too.
This all comes at a huge cost for the climate. Digital technologies account for 8-10% of our energy consumption and 2-4% of our greenhouse gas emissions – small percentages but big numbers. With data centres set to consume even more energy with time, rising from 2.7% of electricity demand in the EU in 2018 to 3.2% by 2030, we need to make sure that emissions do not increase at the same time.
Downsizing digital’s impact on the climate
In 2019, the EU put rules in place to make sure that the computers and equipment used in data centres and by businesses are energy-efficient. Switching to less energy-intensive technology could save the same amount of electricity that a country like Estonia consumes annually, and reduce emissions by 3 million tonnes CO2 a year.
And the European Commission is walking the talk – it has pledged to reduce the size of its data rooms and deactivate systems it no longer uses, while raising awareness among its employees about how they can reduce their own digital carbon footprint.
Frédéric thinks organisations should support their staff to do this: “There needs to be a serious sustainability effort at governance level, with action plans to incentivise staff to use the internet in a better way, and to purchase and repair technology responsibly.”
He also believes companies have an obligation – and an opportunity – to help consumers reduce their digital footprint: “These organisations are part of an ecosystem of telecom providers, server providers… Everyone has a part to play. One thing they could do is look at user behaviour and find people who use video streaming services just to listen to music. If you can identify those users, you can have the option just to play the music and not show the videos.”
Decluttering our digital lives
While it is crucial for organisations to act, people can also make a difference by reducing their own demand on data centres. Here are some suggestions from our Climate Pact Ambassadors:
- Delete old messages and emails, as they are stored on servers. Or better yet, don’t send so many emails in the first place – think about whether each one is really necessary.
- Delete large attachments and avoid making copies of large files, such as photos and videos.
- Unsubscribe from unread newsletters and notifications, and delete unused apps.
- Consider how environmentally friendly your cloud storage is. Ask your provider where your data is held and what they are doing to be more sustainable.
- Streaming music is very energy-intensive, so if you find yourself constantly listening to the same albums or tracks, download them to avoid streaming the same content every day.
- Turn off autoplay mode on social media and close any browser tabs that might play videos without you realising.
- Social networks are using more and more energy, so it’s worth thinking about how much you use social media. You could try doing a digital detox and spending less time online, freeing up time for other hobbies, seeing friends or enjoying nature.
Think twice before buying a new device
Taking steps to detox and downsize your digital activity is one way to cut emissions, but you can also think about the products you own. “Another source of energy consumption is the short lifetime of digital products,” says Paolo Dini, an Italian, Climate Pact Ambassador in Spain and Senior Researcher on Sustainable Artificial Intelligence at the Centre Tecnològic de Telecomunicacions de Catalunya in Spain. “For example, we don’t use mobile phones for more than about five years. So, electronic waste is a big issue and it’s not included in statistics about the information technology sector’s carbon footprint. Energy and resources are needed to build technological products.”
From mobile phones to tablets and games consoles, many of us now have several digital devices made from raw materials such as crude oil and metals, which need to be extracted, processed and transported. Extending the life of your devices by having them repaired, not rushing to buy the latest model if yours still works, and buying second-hand or refurbished devices will all help reduce demand and limit the environmental impact. And when you do buy a new product, check its energy efficiency rating or look for the EU Ecolabel.
As users, we can reduce our demand, but Paolo points out the lack of regulation in the area: “We need the support of legal systems. The whole lifecycle of information and communications technologies should be taken into account, not just their operation and maintenance.”
The plus side of digital activity
Digital isn’t all bad when it comes to the climate – it provides us with vital tools for sharing information and inspiring people to get involved in climate action.
Would the activist Greta Thunberg have risen to global prominence when aged only 15, without the internet spreading a global message from her initially solitary protests? Global climate negotiations also receive a lot of media attention, which helps create pressure on decision makers, thanks to online technologies – key moments at the UN global climate conference in November 2022 (COP 27) were livestreamed and later made available as recordings to anyone with an internet connection.
And, of course, the European Climate Pact relies on the internet to connect people from different countries and communities. For example, when Pact Ambassadors recently met Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans to discuss sustainable travel and transport as part of the EU Youth Dialogue initiative, the event was livestreamed and interactive, enabling young people across Europe to share their thoughts without having to travel. Climate Pact Ambassadors also took advantage of the rise of online meetings to continue hosting Peer Parliaments during the pandemic, to discuss how best to fight climate change with friends, family and colleagues.
With this in mind, head over to the Climate Pact website for inspiration on a range of climate-friendly steps you can take – and make a pledge for the planet while you’re there! Or why not start by looking through your old emails, attachments and photos, and deleting those you no longer need?
Don’t forget to encourage others to do the same on social media, by email, or by word of mouth, and share your progress using the hashtag #EUClimatePact
- Publication date
- 29 November 2022 (Last updated on: 29 November 2022)