How to Save the World with Digital
One of the reasons I love Techbuyer’s support of the Sustainable Development Goals is that they encapsulate sustainability perfectly. Sustainability is not just about climate change and emission reductions, but also about alleviating hunger, poverty, income equality and improving education. It is worth remembering that digital transformation is mentioned in the pathway towards every one of these 17 Global Goals, which makes it even more important that we manage our data usage to give as high a net positive as possible.
Data can be amazing. I love making it, storing it, using it and I love the benefits that it can bring. If we are going to make best use of it, we need to visualise it, which can be hard. So I am going to help with this…
Reducing carbon output with digital technology
A current example that we can all get our heads around: remote working. The last few months have seen a huge transfer of working practice towards digital, which cuts back on dramatically on commuting miles. So, a day’s online browsing might be the equivalent of two miles driving even with online meetings. (If you browse this on Mozilla Firefox, there is a plug in you can use to measure this.) Anyone living outside the immediate neighbourhood of their office can save a huge amount of carbon working from home. However, this data usage is far from carbon free, so treating data as a resource is a good idea.
How can we do better on data use?
Understanding that data has a cost is the first step. The next is to understand that some data is more costly than others. In general terms, fixed networks are more efficient than mobile ones and the richer the experience, the more data it uses. Audio uses more data than text, for example, video dwarfs both, and high definition is more costly than low definition. It is worth understanding that browsing sites on the internet, sending emails from home and having online meetings is a very different proposition to music and video streaming.
How much data does streaming use?
Data storage in the data centre has a carbon cost, but that is dwarfed by data transfer through the networks. The story of the song Despacito is pretty eye-opening on this. The hit song – 4.42mins long – was streamed 7 billion times in 2019. When streamed in a single browser it uses about 87mb. However, multiplying this by the number of people doing this in a single year equates to around 609 PetaBytes of data and 0.5 billion hours of video. To put this in context, a petabyte is 1024 Terabytes which in turn is 1024 Gigabytes, and is large enough to store around 223,101 DVD quality movies.
How data streaming translates to energy usage
For the Despacito example, firstly you have the energy cost in the data centre (compute and storage energy) at broadcast, which works out around 8.2GWh for the 2019 streaming. (This is lots but not terrible).
Then the song hits the network to get to your device – via 3G or 4G, Wi-Fi etc – and the energy usage is affected by how far you are away from a content distribution network stuff and where you are on the planet. Loads of streaming was done in India for the Despacito song, which is not great for connectivity, and resultant energy use was around 877.33GwH, so 100 times more energy was used getting it to you than storing and processing it.
The last part of the data journey is the energy of your device when playing it – TV, Computer, Phone etc. This ends up around 23.4Gwh - once again not brutal but still 3 times more energy used to watch than store for this. However, when you add it to the storage and networking energy usage for that song, it means streaming it in 2019 used roughly the same energy as that consumed by four African countries.
Practical tips on how to reduce data transfer cost
- Use Wi-fi not mobile data. It’s 300% more efficient on energy in Europe and US and more like 2200% more efficient than mobile networks in Africa and Asia
- Turn off video for teams calls and reduce C02 cost by 94%, based on one hour of audio being 36MB per person and HD being 540MB per person. (Interestingly, that 540mb per person can be visualised as 50,000 trees’ worth of printed words.)
- Watch in SD vs HD while streaming, and reduce energy use by 300%
Don’t forget the IT hardware
A laptop requires about 300KG or Carbon, 1200KG of earth and 190,000 litres of water (or enough for an adult for 2 years) to produce. It also uses critical raw materials and conflict minerals, which are in low or politically unstable supply and have a human cost associated with extraction. These materials are in need for other areas of development too, for example wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars. The more that we can save in this regard, with IT upgrades rather than replacements and prolonging the life of our IT equipment, the better it will be for all of us.
Rich appeared at an event in January taking about these issues with other business leaders. You can watch the video below.
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