- ‘Digital’ here refers to an organisation’s web-based activities, the impacts of which will not be measurable via an energy bill - such as cloud services or website hosting. This does not refer to the energy used to power an office, studio or storage facility (information on that kind of energy use can be found here).
- Whilst it is likely that online activities will make up a small fraction of a typical arts organisations total emissions, compared to shipping, for example, simple steps should still be taken to ensure that your digital footprint is minimised.
- Digital tools offer solutions to some of the environmental issues we face (such as digital exhibitions or online viewing rooms, which both offer a low carbon alternative to international travel). However, as our reliance on these tools increases, we should be aware of their associated environmental impacts.
- Exact figures and estimates as to the carbon impact of digital communication are hard to measure, and are continually changing as technology evolves and new research sheds further light. Many hosting services are opaque and some make misleading claims about their energy sources and consumption.
- While there’s a lot of attention on the energy use of cloud platforms, most of the carbon impact from digital technologies is actually from manufacture, or as “embedded carbon”; so minimising the number of devices you buy and keeping them as long as possible will make a measurable difference to your carbon footprint.
- While certainly not without an environmental consequence, the impact of digital technologies are less significant than activities such as flying. However, some aspects of our collective digital usage - such as bitcoin and NFT production - have much larger negative environmental impacts. Information on NFTs can be found on our NFT resource page.
By far the largest source of carbon emission in technology is from those produced in manufacture. both any devices you own, as well as the computers used in the cloud (these are often described as “Scope 3” emissions, and are covered further down this page).
For your own devices, the energy required to produce digital hardware (such as laptops, desktops and mobile phones) will be on average 80% higher than the energy consumed during its usage.
Furthermore, e-waste is the fastest growing type of waste globally, and is often highly toxic.
This means that the most effective step you can take is to minimise the number of devices you have and to keep them for as long as possible.
If you do need to buy a device you should consider budget or older models, or even buying second-hand.
While leading tech brands advertise using recycled materials (which is a welcome development), it is just as important to look for devices that are a) easy to repair (and therefore cheaper to repair) and b) supported with updates for as long as possible.
You can find out which phones are the easiest to repair here.
There are also some brands that have designed their products specifically for sustainability, such as:
- Fairphone which is made from replaceable components and supported for 10 years
- Framework is a recently released laptop that follows a similar approach, and is also made of easily replaceable components.
Cloud Storage / Data Centres
Most organisations and companies now depend on cloud services for their data storage, email, and business applications. This is certainly more efficient than having your own servers - as cloud services operate at huge scale and are optimised for efficiency.
But while the major cloud services (Amazon, Microsoft, and Google) all claim to be moving rapidly to net zero—Google have in fact already reached it—they have all been widely criticised for their sustainability claims. This is because::
They currently all rely on purchasing renewable energy certificates (called RECs in the US or REGOs in the UK) and offsets, whilst continuing to consume energy from the grid of the countries in which they operate. In all cases this means burning fossil fuels to power their data centres. You can read more about why renewable energy certificates don’t make emissions ‘disappear’ here.
They have been accused of underreporting their carbon emissions, often by ignoring their “scope 3” emissions, as in those from the manufacture of their servers by their suppliers (although they are beginning to address that).
They actively promote highly processor-intensive new technologies, such as AI.
They market their services to enable fossil fuel companies and other major emitters to maximise their output. (Google, though, have announced that they will not be selling AI services to oil companies).
They don’t do enough to prevent climate disinformation on their platforms, not least advertising from fossil fuel companies.
Over time, as energy grids shift towards renewables, these cloud servers will become less and less polluting, however, as more and more of the planet becomes reliant on these servers, their energy demands will increase. As users of these services, the best action we can take is to shift to more efficient methods of working, and pressure service providers to make the shift to renewables faster and in a more transparent manner.
Simple file management practices can make a difference. Only save what is necessary, and delete large files that are no longer useful.
Alternatively you can look for an independent provider who can set up email and a secure cloud service, such as NextCloud, on servers reliably powered by renewable energy.
The Green Web Foundation has a directory of service providers who use renewable energy here.
The amount of energy used to run web pages is relatively small. Efficient web servers are capable of delivering hundreds of pages per second and the total energy consumption of a server will have a finite maximum.
As with your own services, discussed above, you should check that your own website is renewably powered. The Green Web Foundation also has a tool to check this.
Some website hosting services, such as Green Geeks, claim to match their energy usage by matching their usage 3x by investing into renewable energy. It’s worth asking your website hosting service about their sustainability commitments, as well as how their data centres are powered.
You can check your website’s estimated carbon footprint here.
An increasing number of web developers are also focusing on low-impact web design.
Using a stock font rather than a custom one will make a website efficient, as the website won't have to load the custom type-face. Building in a “dark mode” setting (as GCC has) can also make a difference for those viewing on OLED screens.
Video and image content are usually the largest items on a website, so reducing the number and resolution of these can also have an impact on the amount of bandwidth required to load a page.
For website development projects, you may want to refer to the sustainable web development directory, which list web agencies that focus on a low-impact approach.
Research into the carbon footprint of email is somewhat unreliable as many published statistics come from a pre-cloud era when email contributed more to carbon emissions because many companies ran their own email servers. The consolidation of resources by cloud platforms has made email technology considerably more efficient, but it still represents a significant volume of data exchanged among and stored on huge numbers of computers.
Email, especially with large attachments, uses substantially more energy than messaging services. Messaging services such as Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack, and Signal have a comparatively negligible environmental impact and are a preferable alternative where possible.
As with cloud Storage, simple email management practices can make a difference. Delete or archive large attachments after use, and avoid large email chains wherever possible.
Video meetings consume a vastly disproportionate amount of energy compared to other forms of communication such as audio phone calls (research suggests the emissions savings could be up to 96%). However, if face-to-face is required then a video meeting does have a much lower environmental impact than in-person meetings when you take into account travel and other factors.
There are other ways to ensure that your time spent using digital services is as least impactful as possible.
Ecosia search engine
Ecosia is known as the ‘search engine that plants trees’. It is a non-profit and registered Bcorp that claims to spend 80% of its advertising income on tree planting and forest restoration. The total amount spent, and the projects supported, are listed every month on its website. However, it should be noted that Ecosia’s search engine is powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine, so all the issues concerning Microsoft’s carbon footprint still apply.
Since 2010 Greenpeace has been calling on digital companies to stop depending on dirty energy and instead power digital activities with renewables. The Click Clean report and website rates the major internet companies on their energy usage and transparency.
- Keeping digital devices in use for as long as possible, through care and repair, is the most effective way to reduce the embedded emissions within digital usage.
- Check the carbon footprint of your cloud services, and if possible move to a more sustainable one.
- Declutter your storage. Simple file management practices can make a difference. Only save what is necessary, and delete large files that are no longer useful.
- Ask your website and cloud hosting services about their sustainability goals and energy consumption of their data centres. Show suppliers that their emissions matter to your organisation.
- Video and image content are usually the largest items on a website, so reducing the number and resolution of these can also have an impact on the amount of bandwidth required to load a page.
- Use instant messaging applications over email wherever appropriate.
- Speak on the phone rather than via video conferencingwhenever possible. If appropriate, keep your camera off during video calls.
- Get work and personal emails under control. Avoid including long email threads in reply emails, unsubscribe from unnecessary lists, delete attachments saved elsewhere, and use alternative messaging services other than email, where possible.