What is digital pollution?

Charlotte Flach Charlotte Flach Editor, C&IT
What is digital pollution?

Elisa Boivin, Managing Director at footsprint, discusses the impact of digital pollution on our world and how tackling it can help brands meet their sustainability goals.

What is digital pollution? 

First of all, it is important to keep in mind that digital has a tremendous potential to contribute to achieving net zero goals at a global scale, if appropriately governed. To establish the proper governance, it's important to start with measuring the true impact of digital pollution.

Digital pollution encompasses all the negative effects on the environment as a consequence of manufacturing, use and disposal of digital devices and infrastructure.

First, to manufacture the hundreds of millions of phones, laptops, etc. purchased every year, we need lots of energy and materials. This includes rare metals, like tantalum and tungsten, that are often extracted in vulnerable areas of the world, polluting their soils, water, etc.  In this phase is where most of our digital pollution takes place. 

Second, the use of our billions of devices and the infrastructure needed to keep the internet running (data centers, transmission networks) consumes a huge amount of electricity, generating more emissions than the aviation sector, and making it more difficult to transition to green electricity generation in many grids across the world. While there are very significant improvements in the efficiency of our data centers, networks, and devices, it is not enough to offset the exponential increase of data shared across the internet.

Third, the disposal of all our old devices generates millions of tons of waste (e-waste) every year, including very toxic metals like mercury, which are often improperly disposed of in developing countries.

Why do companies need to decarbonise, and how does this relate to digital output?

Earlier this year, the IPCC published in one of their latest reports, making very clear that climate change is here and its impacts are being felt beyond natural climate variability. It has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses in all ecosystems.

Climate change is already moving faster than we are, even if we stop emitting carbon to the atmosphere today,  the impacts of what is already up there will last for decades (if not centuries) to come.

This is why we need to reduce carbon emissions quickly and decisively across all sectors– digital included.

Digital impacts have been addressed in the last IPCC report with more detail than ever before, highlighting the growing awareness about its role in both increasing and reducing carbon emissions. The IPCC also highlights how important it is to capitalise on efficiency

 benefits of digital services while avoiding potential rebound effects and demand surges will require early and proactive public policies to avoid excess energy use.  We know that this is already coming, in France for example, the industry is expecting the enforcement of the sustainable web design guidelines by 2024 (Institut du Numérique Français 2021)

You say digital is late in the sustainability game- why is that and what effect has this had? Any stats you can share?

There are a few answers to explain why the digital sector is late, some of them being:

Digital has long been associated with intangibility, and it has taken us long to realize the very tangible impact that our use of digital has, especially when it's something as effortless as streaming a video. Digital impacts don't happen in front of us like the ones from factories or gasoline vehicles, and they are very spread out across the world, which makes developing a sense of ownership and a clear problem definition very complex.

Another reason is that reconciling sustainability science with digital performance is extremely challenging. It takes to make sustainability science (a traditionally long haul, post mortem, rigorous measurement process) work at the speed of digital to truly understand the impact of what we are doing. It requires a wide range of very technical skills on both fronts.

Finally, digital impacts have been so far overlooked in reporting requirements for organizations. While there is little doubt that this will evolve in the next few years, reducing scope 1 and 2 emissions for organizations led them to prioritize other sectors than the digital one.

The fact that has taken so long to start being addressed as a problem has repercussions; The lack of understanding, guidance, and resources we still have today impacts our capacity to manage those emissions, which have now reached over 40 billion tons of CO2 emitted each year.


What are the main drivers of digital pollution?

As mentioned before, equipment manufacturing is the main source and driver of digital emissions. Some studies mention that 80% of the energy consumption in a device’s lifecycle happens before their commercialization.

After equipment manufacturing,  the most important driver is the operational energy consumption in the devices, data centers and networks. This keeps increasing every year. Video streaming accounts for more than half of the internet's energy consumption, adding up to more than 1% of our total global emissions. Data centers consume very high amounts of energy, both to store the data and cool the rooms where they are located. Their impact is expected to keep increasing over the next few years as the amount of data we move around keeps increasing exponentially.

Limiting the impact of the digital world is especially significant because it consumes a lot of electricity (currently around 9% of total consumption and expected to double or triple by 2030). Electricity grids across the world are going to suffer a major shock over the next couple of decades as we need to replace our fossil fuel electricity generators with renewable energy, while at the same time increasing our capacity to provide the additional energy needed to enable the electrification of our transportation and heating systems. Every bit of help that our grids can get is incredibly meaningful and will enable companies to reach faster adoption of green energy.

How can businesses tackle these? Where should they start?

As always with any estimation of climate impacts, the first step is to get a comprehensive and accurate picture of your digital emissions with an inventory. Companies need to start with measuring and visualizing where they are generating the most emissions, so that they can identify where the quick wins are, and what their strategic priorities should be. This is why at footsprint we always start with an analysis of companies' existing practices. Just like in the real world, the first priority will be to fix the existing.

Then we need to build new standards and practices to impose on the digital products and services we are building now, and incorporate digital sustainability into our development processes. This will minimize efforts later down the road, as emissions avoided will not need to be reduced. Just like in other sectors, sustainability will need to be integrated at each stage of software development processes, not as a final add-on. The earlier companies develop this mindset, the smoother the transition will be once regulations come in place (and they will).

How does digital decarbonisation contribute positively to brand perception?

Brand commitment has become one of the main decisive factors in the customer buying process, especially among younger generations. As the climate crisis is one the most important issues of our time, building a brand that is perceived as sustainable is a requirement, and even a matter of survival. That is why – at least on the surface, many have committed to reduce their environmental footprint or to support social impact initiatives. 

Now to truly improve brand perception and build customer loyalty, it takes more than going by the rules. A successful brand is expected to push boundaries and lead the change. For this reason, digital decarbonization can be considered not as a constraint but as an opportunity.

On one side, the industry is late in the sustainable transition because suffering from a severe lack of guidance but on the other, it is being pressured by growing customer expectations (according to a French study, 92% of 15-24 demand from brands that they take action to reduce the environmental impact of their online communication) and public policies (one of the Cop26 main objectives is a 45% reduction of GHG emissions generated by the ICT sector before 2030). In the middle of this complex situation, there is an opportunity to stand out and inspire by paving the way for more sustainable digital practices.

Besides, digital sustainability is not just good for the planet but can have a direct and positive impact on business! For example, building lighter, more efficient websites will help SEO ranking, page speed, and reduce friction which lead to better user experience – another key to positively impact brand perception!

At footsprint, we strongly believe that building the digital ecosystem of the future doesn’t come at the expense of business performance. The future of digital lies at the intersection of performance and sustainability, and early adopters of this transition will find themselves with a lasting competitive advantage.