High-Tech and the Digital Realm

Summary——————–Overview——————–Solutions

High-tech is a specific category of innovative products fabricated using advanced concepts and special materials that are exploited for their interesting properties rather than just for being a solid. Basically, anything that seems complicated and consumes/generates energy falls into the ‘tech’ category. To be high-tech, a product has to showcase some aspects of the most advanced technologies available, like many household appliances do.

We’ve seen incredible technological advances in every field, every decade since the end of the Second World War. The race for high-tech innovation seems more integrated in our societies than ever, for better or for worse. In fact, most developed countries spare 2-4% of their GDP for general research and development [i.e. not just for high-tech].

Unsurprisingly, the continuous pursuit of high-tech has serious consequences on the environment. Between pollution from mining activity and e-waste, ecosystems have been taking hits all along the product life-cycle.

Phones, computers, and similar devices are all made from a lot of different metals. We’ve already talked about how this damages the environment when discussing mining impacts, so we won’t revisit this here. As a reminder though, devices don’t just get lighter and stronger by simply using less materials. Such ‘efficiency’ advances require special alloys or stronger materials that typically worsen manufacturing impacts and make recycling more challenging [meaning higher energy efficiency during use could be cancelled out by a higher production/disposal footprint].

We’ve also mentioned how developed countries are exporting their e-waste, polluting poor and developing regions of the world. These regions are on the losing end of this waste transfer – and their populations and ecosystems are already suffering from e-waste’s impacts.

The 3 Rs

To reduce our impacts, we’ll have to apply the 3 Rs at the largest scales. As usual, solutions for governments and companies are the most important ones. For individuals, applying the 3 Rs will help reduce personal impacts.

For the first R, companies will have to produce higher quality items that can be used for longer – to reduce production and e-waste generation. Reducing by design and improving manufacturing processes to make them more sustainable will also be essential. As for individuals, minimizing our dependence on electronic devices can help us reduce our personal impacts. Notably, avoiding a dependence to IoT [Internet of Things] devices will be crucial – as they simply aren’t required at the individual scale. For example, Alexa doesn’t need to control the ice cube temperature – we can live without these silly gadgets.

Then, we’ll have to reuse electronic devices. Who cares if we can open apps 0.02 seconds faster with the newest high-tech device? We seem to be making absolutely useless innovations in many high-tech fields. Advances in heart transplant devices, studies on GHG emissions, research in public health – those are important fields to study, let’s focus our finite resources there. Additionally, reusing high-tech devices can help us reduce our impacts on the environment. It might be inconvenient to replace a few of the product’s faulty parts once in a while, but reuse helps lower waste and production, while proving much cheaper up front.

Finally, recycling these devices will be key to slow down further depletion of our natural resources. We’ve seen how hard recycling can be when complex materials are used. Although we certainly have room to make advances in our recycling efficiency – and we’ll have to – we’ll never get close to a circular economy if we keep producing high-tech devices at this rate.

ICT Companies and Sustainable Design

Adopting all 3 Rs is tricky, but essential. The green initiatives undertaken by high-tech companies are simply not good enough. Until the ICT [Information and Communications Technology] sector’s ‘big guys’ start selling long-lasting products made with more sustainable materials and less of everything else, they can’t really claim to be doing everything in their power to reduce their impacts. This might slow down device speed and could even lead to redesigning some phones to mere communication devices rather than miniature game consoles – but that’s nothing new [e.g. a few decades ago cell phones looked like square tin cans].

Unfortunately, companies have no incentives to do so. They want to attract the most customers and have them purchase new products regularly. It’s not enough to have everybody buy your products, you need a constant cash flow. Companies need to release new devices regularly, downplay older products, and create interdependencies within their products.

If products were designed to last longer, we could cut pollution and GHG emissions considerably. Even accounting for the extra ingredients needed to make devices more durable, longer lifetimes mean less production and waste. Instead, companies are currently forcing new products on consumers by using sneaky techniques, such as making software updates or design decisions that slow down old devices –or by preventing users from changing the batteries – meaning that the device’s lifetime can’t exceed that of its battery.

Lastly, these companies create products that depend on brand-specific accessories, like chargers, headphones, and other cables for electronics. That’s completely unnecessary from a design perspective – even if it is a smart business move. These types of decisions are what’s making reducing GHG emissions so difficult. We continue to reward such wasteful business strategies by buying more products – so there’s really no incentive for these companies to stop. Making everyone switch charger types because a brand’s charging port has a different shape creates loads of e-waste, on top of depleting resources during production. Again, as long as we keep measuring success and product viability exclusively with money, without accounting for environmental impacts – we shouldn’t expect any slowing down of climate change or biodiversity loss.

While high-tech can help us decarbonize effectively at larger scales, we’ll have to combine it with low-tech solutions to reduce our energy and material demand [low-tech is often based on simple mechanisms, sustainable designs, or natural processes].

The Digital Realm

Introduction to the Virtual World’s Inner Workings

Another polluting aspect of high-tech that often flies under the radar is its footprint during use. We’re not just talking about the power consumption of these devices. We’re alluding to the environmental impacts caused by using the internet, device communication networks, and data storage.

When we use the internet, we’re requesting or sending information. Whether we’re looking something up on Google, streaming on Netflix, or uploading videos on the cloud – there’s a physical place where all this information is stored – called a data center. For example, if instead of saving a file locally on your computer you upload it to one of your clouds – you’re just saving it ‘locally’ at a data center.

Networks send your request to the data center and the result back to your device. They’re also responsible for connecting our devices with each other for phone calls and text messages. While networks are becoming increasingly wireless, they can be ‘fixed-line’ as well, meaning they use cables [e.g. fiber-optic, ethernet]. There are even submarine cables on the ocean floor that connect continents [map].

Around 4 billion people used the internet in 2019, which accounted for over 51% of the world population. That’s projected to increase to 5 billion by 2025.

IP Traffic and Electricity Consumption

Unfortunately, there’s limited information about how much CO2e is emitted from a single google search or from sending an email. Estimates are imprecise, depend on a multitude of factors, and often contradict each other – so there’s no easy way to measure our individual impacts. However, we can evaluate the virtual world’s global impacts.

Global internet traffic [IP traffic] is the measure of how much data is flowing through networks all around the world. This measurement [in bytes] considers both the number of data requests [e.g. 3 Google searches] and the size of each request [streaming a video causes much more traffic than a Google search]. Global IP traffic has more than doubled from 2016-2019, and it’s projected to double again from 2019-2022 [a 12-fold increase from 2010-2019]. It’s expected to reach 4.2 trillion gigabytes [GB] by 2022.

IP traffics due to video streaming and online gaming are projected to double to 2.9 trillion GB and quadruple to 0.18 trillion GB respectively from 2019-2022. These 2 categories would then combine for 73% of the world’s IP traffic in 2022 [and 87% of consumer IP traffic]. Additionally, new technologies like blockchain [e.g. Bitcoin], artificial intelligence, and virtual reality are also significantly increasing IP traffic as they continue to gain popularity. Note that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, global IP traffic saw a 40% surge between February and mid-April 2020.

The ICT sector’s energy consumption during use is mostly electric. Data centers [0.8%] and networks [1%] combine for around 1.8% of global electricity use. If they were considered a country in 2019, data centers and networks would combine for 10th place on the worldwide electricity consumption rankings [with 450 TWh]. The ICT sector as a whole was ranked 3rd in 2012, and has only increased its electricity consumption since. The resulting emissions per year are difficult to calculate, since some companies are closer to their 100% renewable goal than others.

Wireless and mobile networks are projected to take a more dominant role in the future, increasing from 50% of total IP traffic in 2019 to 70% in 2022. And while 4G and 5G networks are much more energy efficient than 3G and 2G, the continuous growth in connectivity is still increasing electricity consumption worldwide.

Unfortunately, 5G antennas consume roughly 3 times as much electricity as 4G antennas. While there’s debate over how their efficiency will evolve over time, it’s worth noting that 5G antennas are also short ranged compared to their 4G counterparts. This means that the 5G network will require more antennas per given networked area, which increases the technology’s impacts. Lastly, the expansion of 5G could cause a massive increase in electricity demand due to the rebound effect [e.g. streaming more videos at once because the better internet connection allows it].

Renewables and Energy Efficiency

With great power consumption comes great responsibility. As major electricity consumers worldwide, ICT companies have to reduce their impacts on the environment by opting for the greenest electricity sources. They have a wide range of options when it comes to powering their data centers with renewables – from pre-ordering flat rates of renewable energy [PPAs] to building and managing their own renewable parks. Alternatively, if companies choose to rely on the local grid’s electricity for their data centers, then they have the responsibility to be located in areas where the electricity mix is dominated by renewables [ideally in cooler regions of the world to reduce A/C electricity consumption].

Data centers will have to process more and more information as IP traffic rises. Although that’s unavoidable [with no peak in sight], it doesn’t mean they have to emit more pollutants just yet. In fact, data center energy consumption hasn’t increased since 2010, while the workload [total requests] and internet traffic are 7.5 and 12 times higher than in 2010, respectively.

Note that this graph only shows energy consumption trends at data centers. The ICT sector as a whole has increased its energy consumption in the last decade.

Unfortunately, maintaining the same level of energy consumption isn’t sustainable when faced with exponentially growing IP traffic. In the very near future, the ever-increasing demand of data and communications will surpass energy efficiency advances – eventually increasing energy consumption in data centers. By then, we better have the cleanest electricity sources running those data centers or our virtual environment will severely damage our physical one.

And as a reminder, continuously producing more energy-efficient products has impacts of its own – which the graph above doesn’t include.

There isn’t much individuals can do to reduce their hidden impacts – apart from lowering consumption and avoiding products made by the ICT sector’s most polluting companies. An extensive 2017 Greenpeace report assessed the largest ICT companies based on a range of factors, from advocacy against climate change to the transparency of their power consumption data [it’s important to note that a lot of companies have made progress since the report came out in 2017]. It can come in handy for individuals that wish to reduce their impacts.

Conclusion

To recap, the ICT sector consumes energy and pollutes in 4 different ways:

  • Powering devices
  • Data centers
  • Network services
  • Manufacturing and waste for all of the above

Although the hidden world of our technology helps us dematerialize from certain items like USB drives or CDs, it increases materialization in other parts of the world – which has very visible impacts on our environment.

Since data center and network energy consumption doesn’t occur in front of us, it can be challenging to grasp the scale at which the internet and communication networks consume and pollute. The astounding pace of growing connectivity in the world will undoubtedly keep increasing the ICT sector’s energy consumption – regardless of how energy efficient data centers have been until now. Better policies will be crucial to make sure that companies reduce their impacts effectively and avoid an energy demand surge.

While we seem to be digitalizing more and more of the world that surrounds us, we can’t forget that the goal for a more sustainable future requires reductions in our consumption across all sectors. We simply can’t afford to have the ICT sector lag behind while the rest of the world gets to work.