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September 1, 2021

The digital CO2 footprint

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When it comes to avoiding CO2, topics such as airplanes, the meat industry and cars are often criticized. However, these are just a few factors that lead to increased CO2 emissions. Completely underestimated are CO2 emissions that are emitted with every search engine query, every streamed movie and every click. No precise data is available for Switzerland, but in Germany emissions are estimated at 850 kilograms of CO2 per person. However, digitization is not generally bad - smart technologies can also reduce the digital footprint.

Huge amounts of data are generated every minute.

The digital world changed permanently as a result of the Corona pandemic. Whether home office, streaming from home or Zoom workshops - everyday life increasingly shifted to the digital world. So more data is generated per minute than in previous years.

Since 2018, the number of Internet users has increased significantly. According to one estimate, 3.9 billion people used the Internet in 2018. In 2020, this figure rose to 4.57 billion, ot 58 percent of the world's population. this figure will continue to rise. Conscious and efficient use of resources will therefore become increasingly important.

CO2 emissions from search engine queries

Queries to search engines consume a relatively large amount of energy. Thousands of servers are harnessed to deliver results in a short time. It is estimated that each query consumes 0.3 watt hours of electricity. This may not look like much, but in total an enormous amount of energy is consumed. For example, Google alone receives an average of 3.8 million search queries per minute. To mitigate its impact on the environment, Google has committed to sourcing 100 percent of its electricity needs from renewable sources. In its 2018 sustainability report, the company said it had already reduced its carbon intensity per unit of revenue by 87 percent.

Music and video streaming

The energy consumption of streaming services, such as Netflix, Spotify and Co. is enormous. In most cases, users are not even aware of how much CO2 is emitted by the streaming services. Video content now accounts for around 80 percent of data traffic in telecommunications networks.

In order for videos to be transmitted on screens, data must be stored on servers. Annually, the servers require about 55 terawatt hours to transmit the videos. The data centers must be cooled to a temperature of 25 degrees so they don't overheat. Thus, one-third of the energy is needed just to cool the servers. The most climate-friendly method is to transmit the streams via the fiber optic network, emitting CO2 emissions of 2 grams per hour. In contrast, 5G mobile networks emit 5 grams & 4G mobile networks around 13 grams of CO2 per hour.

How can digitalization reduce the digital carbon footprint?

Digitization is influencing almost every aspect of everyday life. It opens up new kinds of potential and can even be helpful in protecting the environment. For example, information can be better incorporated into operational processes and promote sustainable development.

Here are a few examples of sustainable use of digital technologies:

  • Sharing economy: whether car-sharing systems, food-sharing services, or the bartering/selling of textiles. It is in the nature of humans to exchange or share possessions or services. Digitization has made this process much easier. Through networking, resources can be offered to other people quickly and easily. As a result, the sharing economy brings about a more conscious and social consumption of existing resources and works against the throwaway mentality.
  • Smart Home: Smart living is becoming increasingly popular, whether in electricity or heating consumption. The use of smart applications and devices makes it possible, among other things, to keep an eye on electricity and heating costs and to regulate consumption efficiently.
  • CO2 tracking: apps can help consumers make climate-friendly choices and live more resource-efficiently. A good example is the app "rvolt", where users can monitor their CO2 consumption and collect points for sustainable actions. The app thus creates more awareness among users for personal behavior and the emissions it causes.
  • 3D printing: The use of 3D printers can make the production of individualized products more sustainable. Objects can be adapted exactly to the respective needs of the consumer - material waste is thus significantly reduced. Many spare parts can be produced on-demand, eliminating costs and CO2 emissions for storage and transport.
  • Green Search Engines: The easiest way to save electricity is to type in well-known websites directly. Since this is not possible in many cases, an alternative to the common search engines is so-called green search engines - for example, Ecosia. The search engine operates CO2-neutral, moreover, 80 percent of the revenue surplus flow into reforestation.

Digitization has changed our society and facilitates everyday life in many areas. However, so that digitization does not have a negative impact on the environment, a rethink must take place and sustainable developments must be promoted.