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Digital transformation has been at the top of the business agenda for a while now. We are living in a digital age and it would be impossible to run a business without engaging in it in some way. The last year of the pandemic has accelerated change and the use of digital technology has often been the only way to stay connected to customers, colleagues, suppliers, friends and family.

How many times have we been told that this rapid transformation is beneficial for the environment? We’ve moved meetings, events and social activities online and reduced commuting and travel significantly compared to pre-pandemic times. “Think of all the emissions we have prevented”, we’re told!

But recent headlines about bitcoin and the energy intensity of digital data centres have got me wondering about the hidden environmental impact of digitalisation. Are we just displacing the impact; reducing emissions in our immediate surroundings but shifting the burden onto others? Are we at risk of losing touch with the effects of our everyday consumption now that everything can be done remotely?

The Impact

Every time I send an email or join a Zoom call, I contribute to global warming. Every time I search the web, open a website, post on social media, I create pollution. As with physical ‘stuff’, we consume too much data and we don’t think about it because we’re told “digital is green”.

Granted, the impact is relatively low compared to driving a car, flying abroad or heating your home but what’s scary is how quickly our digital consumption is increasing. According to the International Energy Agency, datacentres accounted for 1% of global energy consumption in 2019 and this is growing rapidly. A medium-sized data centre (15MW) also uses as much water for cooling as three averaged-sized hospitals, putting a strain on local water resource. According to a Greenpeace study, global cloud computing consumes more electricity than all of Germany put together!

That is all before we consider the impact of digital waste; the phones, laptops, computers, monitors that we replace increasingly frequently. All contain precious metals mined from environmentally sensitive regions and all are difficult (or inconvenient) to repair or recycle.

How Can You Minimise Your Negative Impact?

  1. Wherever your digital tech is plugged in (home or office), switch to a renewable energy provider.
  2. If your business has an energy centre/server, set cooling systems to a higher temperature (9% in energy costs can be saved for every 1°C increase in temperature). 23°C is optimum without risking overheating.
  3. Make time to clean up your data (saved on your server, desktop, the cloud). Delete old files you no longer need or those 10 identical photos. Cloud computing in particular consumes a lot of energy as files are backed up over and over again for security reasons.
  4. If you have to purchase new digital tech, buy with energy efficiency and lifespan in mind.
  5. Even better, buy second hand.
  6. Download instead of stream as it uses much less energy, and view in lower definition. Platforms like Netflix use more than 20x the energy to stream in high definition.
  7. Think before you search! Google searches consumed as much energy as the city of San Francisco in 2015 (which is likely to be much higher now). Go straight to the website address if you know it instead of searching it.
  8. Use a planet-friendly search engine like Ecosia who plant trees.
  9. Clean out your email inbox. Each email sent, received and stored requires computing power. Unsubscribe from newsletters you never read, cut down on junk mail, clear out old messages.
  10. Switch to an eco-friendly email provider that uses renewable energy.
  11. Switch to a green website host that uses renewable energy and optimises energy-efficiency. A website with 10,000 page views a month could emit up to as much CO2 as driving a car over 5000 miles.
  12. Test your website’s carbon footprint. Receive tips to decrease it, including improving website SEO, increasing website speed, using paler colours.
  13. Have ‘camera off’ meetings. Turning your camera off during a videoconference can reduce your environmental footprint in that meeting by 96%.

Do all of this and you’re well on your way to dramatically reducing your digital carbon footprint. Go one step further and encourage staff, customers and suppliers to do the same. The positive impact you could have on the planet is vast!

Bryony Salter
Business Development Manager