By Theresa Pinto M.S., Contributing Reporter
MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA – The Paris-based think tank, The Shift Project, released a report last week stating that the internet has contributed nearly four percent of total global carbon emissions since 2013, mostly from the servers and hardware needed to run streaming video.
The Shift Project researches ways to transition economies to renewable energy. The analysis, titled ‘Lean ICT – Towards Digital Sobriety’ focused on the raw materials that make up digital technology and the energy it consumes. ICT stands for Information and Communication Technology.
Besides the environmental impacts of the physical hardware, the slinging of data around the world at lightning fast speeds is growing carbon emissions by nine percent annually, according to the study.
The report also found that the greatest impact comes from the highest income countries, accounting for more than ninety percent of that data. For example, “an average American owns ten digitally connected devices and consumes 140 Gigabytes of data monthly while an average Indian only owns one device and consumes 2 Gigabytes monthly.”
Rarely if ever does internet use come into discussions of climate change. Businesses and institutions often ‘digitize’ their processes as part of climate mitigation strategies. Digital transformation is viewed as more sustainable, using less materials and energy than traditional forms of information exchange.
However, Hugues Ferreboeuf, Director of the report’s working group said, “[This] report brings evidence to companies that their digital transformation is not automatically compatible with their climate change mitigation targets.”
Recent trends point to a rise in streaming video, with internet video subscriptions surpassing cable subscriptions for the first time this year, as reported by the Motion Picture Association of America in March.
Netflix remains the most popular streaming service with 63 percent of respondents using it, up eight percentage points from last year; 54 percent use Amazon and 43 percent use Hulu.
The Shift Project report details more than just digital home entertainment; it looks at all the materials and processes that go into the digital world, from the physical mining of minerals to the end products online. And data-heavy videos are consuming more and more of the online space.
Media companies at least, are taking the hint. Facebook in December of last year contracted with a solar distribution cooperative to build a 200MW solar farm for their new data server in Georgia. They are also working with the Tennessee Valley Authority to build a renewable-powered data center in Alabama, as is Google.
Facebook purposefully chose a nonprofit cooperative, Georgia’s Walton Electric Membership Corporation, to build their new energy project. Bypassing Georgia Power, the state’s dominant utility, Facebook appreciated that the cooperative was customer-owned and community-oriented, according to Walton’s spokesperson Greg Brooks.
In Florida, the Solar United Neighbors cooperative has helped install solar roofs on residences since 2015.
In partnership with the League of Women Voters, they envision putting “solar on every roof, and money in every pocket.” But they focus mainly on rooftop installations for individuals.
The Shift Project report prescribes what they call the Digital Sobriety scenario, which is exactly as it sounds. It asks the high-income nations to sober up and lighten their internet use.
Yet, the report says this will only slow things down and “prevent an explosion” of the digital environmental footprint.