The Carbon Intensity of Social Media

August 26, 2021

Hi! My name is Andre, and I’m a TikTok Addict. Whether it be watching videos of frozen honey or hearing odes of adoration to Jeffrey Bezos, I consume a lot of data to entertain my quarter-life crisis-plagued zillenial soul. Outside of questioning my purpose in life, I’ve gotten curious about how digital systems (and my TikTok addiction) have contributed to the climate crisis that is currently threatening to low key (or high key) shorten my projected life span, which, for an average Canadian male, is 81.95 years [1].

If we look at digital technologies, literature suggests that digital technologies contribute anywhere from 1.4% to 5.9% of global anthropogenic emissions [2]. For context, a previous blog post I authored posited that the maritime shipping industry contributes to roughly 2.89% of global emissions. This is quite mind-blowing: internet, data sharing, and digital services, all of which are seemingly intangible, having equivalent, if not more emissions than the maritime shipping industry.

George Kamiya from the International Energy Agency associates emissions from data sharing to energy use of devices, network infrastructure, and data centres [3]. In layman’s terms, if I am mindlessly scrolling through TikTok, emissions are produced by the electricity needed to operate my phone, the electricity needed to access my wireless network, and the data centres and servers in TikTok headquarters where content is stored and supported.

We can even extend the scope of this thought experiment by including the entire life cycle or include what is known as “embodied” emissions: raw material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, and disposal. Literature suggests that emissions from digital technologies are mostly from the use process of the life cycle, but for mobile devices such as smartphones and laptops with a frequent replacement cycle, these embodied emissions take up around half of the life cycle emissions [4]. To avoid inducing further anxiety, we’ll leave it there on the GHG emissions in the entire life cycle of digital systems and focus on the use stage.

As we become more and more reliant on digital systems, data is being shared more than ever. The global pandemic only exacerbated this, with internet traffic surging by 40% between February and April 2020 [5]. What is interesting about the positive trend in internet traffic and consequently, the demand on data centres and network infrastructure, is a comparison of these trends to the overall energy use of data centres and network infrastructure. The figure attached demonstrates that energy used by data centres since 2010 has remained relatively stable despite the substantial increase in internet traffic. This is due to a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, efficient network infrastructure and data centres.  Furthermore, substantial investment in renewable energy by information and communications technology (ICT) companies has occurred, likely making the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their energy use lower over time.

[6]

Despite the above, my impassioned zillenial soul would like to see ICT companies go further. More and more companies are pursuing net-zero goals where companies endeavour to reduce their GHG emissions based on a defined scope, and in areas where they cannot reduce GHG emissions, they offset these emissions by purchasing carbon offsets. Bluesource is a leader in providing innovative, simple, and reliable solutions to help ICT companies achieve their sustainability and climate action goals and has been helping some of your favorite operating systems and search engines do so for over a decade.  We applaud their commitment and leadership in the space.

Is my TikTok addiction shortening my life span? Low key yes. There is definitely an environmental impact to the mindless scrolling, so perhaps I should go outside for a walk instead of learning about the new pasta trend. I heard the real, outside world has some redeeming qualities that the virtual world doesn’t have.

References

[1] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1310040901

[2] https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/digital-technology-and-the-planet/digital-technology-and-the-planet-report.pdf

[3] https://www.iea.org/commentaries/the-carbon-footprint-of-streaming-video-fact-checking-the-headlines

[4] Malmodin J and Lunden D 2018 The Energy and Carbon Footprint of the Global ICT and E&M Sectors 2010–2015.

[5] https://www.sandvine.com/hubfs/Sandvine_Redesign_2019/Downloads/2020/Phenomena/COVID%20Internet%20Phenomena%20Report%2020200507.pdf

[6] https://www.iea.org/reports/data-centres-and-data-transmission-networks

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