Towards the necessary evolution of digital practices

Studies demonstrating the huge impact of digital technologies in terms of carbon footprint have been multiplying for several years. At the same time, digital usage continues to diversify and become more widespread. If states pass legislation to limit the production of digital waste, users will have to change their practices in the coming years.

Digital technologies today cover an extremely vast material reality: computers, televisions, telephones, connected objects of all kinds, vehicles, etc. The use of these technologies is constant. The result is an increasing carbon footprint associated with the life cycle of these products, despite the continuous progress made in terms of energy efficiency.

While a few years ago, due to the lack of reliable data, there was a tendency to evaluate the impact of digital technologies only at the stage of their use, now it is possible to accurately calculate the total environmental impact of a digital product, based on its stage of production, which also includes the extraction of its constituent composition of raw materials and their processing, when the latter is considered waste.

For example, the extraction of 350 kg of raw materials needed for making a TV set is equivalent to a one-way Paris-Marrakesh flight., in terms of carbon footprint. Even before the TV hits the store shelves.

Another example – 80 times more energy to make a gram of a smartphone than to make a gram of a car.

The last three figures to put the problem more globally: in 2019, digital technologies require 16% of the electricity produced in the world, while in France data centers alone consume 10% of the electricity generated. Finally, digital activity at the global level is responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions on our planet.

States are taking steps to combat this trend. In France, WEEE laws, the obligation of companies to participate in the recycling of their computer equipment, and the obligation of retailers to return used devices, among other things, lay the foundation for more responsible consumption of conventional digital devices. As for the life cycle of these devices after their production.

This is exactly where the bottom hurts. Indeed, the above figures, such as the amount of greenhouse gases generated by digital technologies, could double by 2025. So to say, the production of digital devices and the use of digital technologies are constantly growing.

Therefore, in order to be able to design a digital future compatible with the goals – national and global – to reduce the global carbon footprint, it is necessary to take into account in an up-to-date way the number of digital devices in circulation. . This is proving difficult today, but one thing is for sure: the relative decline in the impact of digital technologies requires the evolution of practices associated with the use of these objects, regardless of their life cycle.

According to a 2019 study by Green IT, smartphones, computers and TVs make up about 34 billion devices on the planet and are the main source of digital pollution.

Therefore, it seems necessary to develop methods for limiting the energy consumption of these objects during their lifetime. Let’s take two examples: email and streaming.

Email pollution

everything has been said about contamination caused by the use of e-mail and data stored in our mailbox without our knowledge, such as, for example, spam. With the advent of social media and instant messaging, their environmental impact has increased exponentially. In 2018, 281 billion emails were sent worldwide every day, which is the equivalent of 410 million tons of atmospheric CO2. It is estimated that 80% of these emails are never opened. Even if the email is not open, storing it in the data center consumes power.

Thus, for users, the development of new practices can significantly reduce this aspect of digital pollution. First, you need to regularly clean your mailbox, some free applications can make this job easier. Also, unsubscribe from emails you’ve never read, and avoid sending unnecessary attachments whenever possible. These simple, albeit time-consuming practices will become everyday gestures in the coming years, comparable to the recycling habits that are now part of our daily lives.

Streaming, abyss of energy

Second example, streaming. Streaming video online and playing it on tablets, smartphones or computers consumes a lot of power. Blame it on the size of the files in question, which are very large as they consist of thousands of images that must be stored on servers. According to EDF, streaming now accounts for nearly 60% of digital usage. The think tank The Shift Project estimated 2019 streaming emissions at 1% of global emissions. The figure is rising, especially with the onset of the Covid health crisis.

Streaming users will have to introduce new habits to reduce the overall impact of this practice. In China, the parent company that runs the Tik Tok app has limited youth access to its app to 40 minutes a day, banning it entirely overnight. One way to limit the impact of this use on the environment, as well as on young people who consume more and more screens every day and for whom the effects of these practices on the brain is far from trivial, even if it is poorly known.

Pierre Tuverez