Your tech use impacts the planet. Here’s how to reduce it

It’s news to noone that we’re on the brink of climate catastrophe. COP27 was moreorless the letdown it was predicted to be. Former Irish President Mary Robinson even feared that many world leaders there were close to giving up on the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C this century.

What’s tech got to do with that? Well, quite a lot. According to France’s The Shift Project, the digital sector accounts for nearly 4% of total greenhouse gases (3.7%, to be precise). Not only is that around double aviation’s impact, but it’s also set to rise exponentially in coming years, if nothing changes.

So, what if altering our digital habits could be just as beneficial as stopping car or air travel? Here’s how to try…

1. Limit your internet energy consumption

Whilst the French government has provoked some hilarity by encouraging the population to turn off their internet boxes at night — whilst allowing the super-rich to keep travelling in private jets and mega-polluting yachts — the fact is said boxes use as much electricity as a fridge; and only insomniacs need wifi at night. Macron’s government is so hell-bent on this sort of mini-measure that they may even force internet providers to turn their boxes off at night.

Yes, any un-used energy helps. But internet boxes’ energy consumption is small fry compared with that of video streaming. Remember? Netflix counts for 15% of the world’s internet consumption. Then consider streaming in 720p definition (standard HD) uses 1.4Gb of data per hour, versus 6.5 for 1080p or 4K. Then think about the fact you watch most of your series on your computer… and realise it just takes one simple settings change to consume 4 times less data, and therefore logically less energy, when you Netflix & chill. Until video streaming companies work out how to automatically adjust the definition to whatever you’re watching the last episode of Stranger Things with (isn’t it bonkers that they haven’t yet?)

2. Reuse or repair; don’t buy new

This is one of the simplest fixes out there. When you consider that over 80% of a smartphone’s environmental impact comes from its manufacturing — largely because each handset demands such a huge diversity of rare components, often known as “conflict materials”, that have to be flown all over the world — you may want to think twice about Apple’s annual incitation to get a new iPhone. Fortunately, most of us don’t listen to that call; we keep our smartphones for 23 months on average. But why not longer? And what do we do with the old ones?

E-waste is the fastest-growing type of refuse today. It’s time to change our habits.

Companies like Black Market or Swappie are currently booming by selling reconditioned smartphones and PCs. And they’re just scratching the surface. Only 5% of smartphones are reused today, whereas 50% of cars are bought second hand**. Only we, the consumer, can make that change happen quicker. So. Repeat after me:

  1. Make your smartphone lasts as long as you can. Protect it front and back, and back it up its data regularly
  2. When it doesn’t give up the ghost, buy a reused one, not a new one…
  3. …make sure your old one is properly disposed of (Apple, for example, disassembles old iPhones and recycles their components)
  4. And if you really have to buy a new one, make sure it’s a Fairphone!
  5. Oh and the same applies to your computer. My MacBook is now 12 years old, because I’ve replaced the battery and hard drive twice. And it works just fine 🤓

OK? 🙂

3. Use the cloud

I would say this, because I work for a cloud provider right now, but it makes massive sense, for two reasons.

One, if your company is using servers set up in its own basement, those servers could only be operating at part of their capacity — say, 20% — but still using as much energy as if they were full. On the public cloud, resources are mutualised, so that all servers are always full, and their energy usage is fully optimised.

Secondly, you can choose a cloud provider that gives a shit about the planet, by checking out their PUE (power usage efficiency) and WUE (water usage efficiency). If neither of those stats are easy to find, move on. And if you cna find them, they should be below 1.2 & 0.2 respectively. Why is this important? Because data centers are estimated to use up to one third of the Paris region’s electricity, for example*. Though this figure varies widely by location, the bottom line is that the cloud contributes massively to the digital sector’s 4% of global greenhouse gases. So anything that can be done to lower that impact is good, right?

4. Protect your data to protect the planet

Privacy defenders’ favourite reason to be green also makes perfect sense. Whereas WhatsApp and Chrome collect vast amounts of your personal data so they can sell it back to brokers who’ll in turn target you with ads, Signal and Brave won’t. But the latter apps and browsers don’t just hide your secrets. That data collection the others get up to is also hugely energy consuming. WhatsApp, for example, stores a single photo in several different places when you send it to just one person, thereby unnecessarily generating cloud activity and costs. And, as discussed above, the less we have of that, the better…

5. Limit your crypto damage

If you’ve read this blog before, you know what we think of crypto and web3 hype. But if you must dabble in cryptocurrency — yes, even now, in late 2022 — there’s another simple choice to make. Avoid Bitcoin like the plague. Why? Because it uses as much energy as a medium-sized country, like Argentina or Denmark. Why? Because its “proof of work” (PoW) protocol demands ever-more powerful machines to resolve ever-more complicated equations to unlock new currency. This is precisely why Ethereum, the second biggest cryptocurrency, recently moved to “proof of stake” (PoS): because it uses a validation system which uses less than 1% of the energy Bitcoin uses. Ergo, stick to PoW (if you really have to crypto!)

Of course, there’s only so much we can do as individuals. It was recently estimated that around 75% of action that needs to be taken to avoid going over 1.5°C is down to governments and corporations, i.e. entities we don’t fully control. But if we can control the other 25%, reducing our tech’s impact — along with stopping beef and fast fashion — could just make a meaningful difference to that 4% of emissions. We hope!

*source: José Guignard of French utility company GRDF, quoted in Guillaume Pitron’s book, L’Enfer numérique

**source: Swappie’s COO, Emma Lehikoinen, speaking at Slush 2022

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