Back in 2012, a survey revealed that 51% of Americans believe stormy weather affects cloud computing. This might seem amusing today, but even now there remains a disconnect among the general population between what digital is imagined to be and what it really is.
Things like the internet, the cloud, and other digital technologies are often regarded as 'light and fluffy', floating somewhere through the air, making it easy to forget that behind these services lies expansive infrastructure that gobbles up gargantuan amounts of resources.
Your internet router uses as much electricity as your refrigerator; and bitcoin mining on a global scale uses as much energy as a country like Thailand. Furthermore, every digital action has a physical impact – a single online search uses as much electricity as switching on a lightbulb for 1-2 minutes.
Even so, the bulk of the carbon impact of the digital sector comes from manufacturing. For example, 90% of the carbon impact of a smartphone comes from its manufacture, and just 10% from its usage.
As things stand, the digital sector is a major contributor to the climate crisis. The bad news is that, left unchecked, its global CO2 footprint is expected to double to 8% by 2025.
The good news is that we can do something about it. You, as a private individual, and digital service providers alike.
Digital Cleanup Day — which is celebrated each year on March 19, but whose initiatives should be followed year-round — is conceived to shine a light on these efforts, and to encourage us to minimize digital pollution by cleaning up digital trash, reducing e-waste, and spreading the word.
Here's how you can make a difference.
1. Take out your digital trash
When you upload something online, it's stored in a physical drive in a data center somewhere in the world. The emails in your inbox, the videos on your social media profile, the images in your cloud account – they all take up space in servers that are running 24/7.
But, chances are that you will never revisit most of those files, emails, documents, which means they're sitting there wasting energy. It's like keeping a light on in a room that you'll never use.
Join thousands of others in cleaning up your folders and deleting unnecessary files, apps, emails, photos, videos, and other digital waste. Digital Cleanup Day's website provides useful tips on how to get started on this.
2. Minimize e-waste
E-waste is short for electronic waste, and refers to the hardware itself. As mentioned earlier, the electronics manufacturing process is among the biggest culprits in terms of CO2 emissions. In response, one of the best things you can do is to give your old electronics a second life.
Don't just throw out hardware – repair it, donate it, sell it, or repurpose it instead. Do you have an old laptop sitting in the back of the closet? Why not donate it to a local school to help support remote students?
Sometimes electronics are beyond repair. If it's not salvageable, then make sure you recycle it. E-waste can contain materials that are harmful to the environment and disposing of them properly will help minimize the damage. Apple has even developed robots specifically trained to disassemble iPhones. So if you don’t know what to do with your old smartphone, why not take it back to its maker?
3. Raise awareness about digital pollution
The digital sector’s environmental footprint is still something most people are oblivious to. You can amplify your own positive contribution toward a more sustainable future by involving others as well.
Simply having a chat with friends and family and educating them about how the internet and the cloud works (it's all electricity-powered, water-cooled servers!) can help them understand the real-world impacts of their digital actions. In terms of concrete actions, you can, for example, invite your friends to switch to a privacy-focused messaging tool such as Signal – it doesn't process any data on you, and hence uses less energy. Privacy is green!
Spreading the word beyond your social circles also matters. You can organize events on social media, invite people to join digital cleanup initiatives, or even publicly call out organizations to consider their digital footprints and act to lessen them.
To that last point, all of your favorite online platforms and websites are using hosting services (read: data centers) to stay online. But not all data centers are made equal – some are more efficient and environmentally friendly than others. Accordingly, you can write to companies and institutions and ask them to host their services in modern data centers that waste less resources.
Why data centers are key
Deleting an email is like turning the water off while you brush your teeth – it's good to do your part, but your individual impact is small. That email takes up a minuscule fraction of just one server, whereas a data center will host thousands of servers that not only use up electricity, but also water for cooling.
How much electricity? Data centers are responsible for ~1% of the world's electricity use, and this share is growing. To put it into perspective, a single data center can use as much power as a small city.
The numbers are jaw-dropping for water use as well. For instance, some data centers in the Netherlands use 1 million cubic meters of water per year, which is roughly equivalent to the yearly water consumption of 20,000 people.
Accordingly, minor data center efficiency improvements translate to massive resource savings. More than could ever be achieved by deleting old emails.
Lack of public awareness about the environmental impact of data centers means inefficient ones aren't publicly scrutinized. Nor are the companies that choose to use these services. In turn, energy continues to be wasted.
That said, the tides are turning thanks to improved understanding about the role of the digital sector, which has been accelerated by events such as Digital Cleanup Day. Soon, popular pressure, hand-in-hand with legislative action, will reshape the environmental standards all data centers must adhere to.
How to stand for a sustainable future
Scaleway - operator of the most sustainable data center in Europe - stands with future generations to take on the urgent challenge of climate change, and empower them with the tools and knowledge needed to demand a more sustainable technology sector.
The climate crisis can be averted by a combination of individual, collective, legislative, and industrial measures. The only condition for success: that everyone plays their part, be it through deleting an email, donating an old laptop, or choosing an eco-conscious cloud service provider.