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Why tech needs to rethink net zero

Marco PimentelApril 22, 2022

Digital technology has a larger carbon footprint than the aviation industry – and it’s only getting bigger

“Greenhouse gas” likely makes you think of cars, production plants, oil, or any number of very real, visible polluters. But what if we told you the internet and digital technology produce a larger annual carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry? 

Every email, search query, video stream, or like on social media comes at the cost of emitting a few grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the energy needed to power your device and the wireless networks you access. 

And there are over 4.95 billion active internet users worldwide, increasing by more than half a million new users every single day – all emitting a few grams with every mouse click or double-tap. On a global scale, digital technology and internet usage are responsible for 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions –  and this “digital carbon footprint” is predicted to double by 2025.

What’s causing our digital carbon footprint?

Our digital carbon footprint is the product of mass amounts of power consumption. But that power consumption isn’t just because your devices need charging – the real problem comes down to data. 

The technological infrastructure that processes, stores, and exchanges the data we rely on for all our online activity is powered and cooled by electricity. How much power do these data centers chew through? Anywhere from 200 to 500 billion kWh per year, an estimated 3% of the world’s electricity. 

Passing through these server networks is every byte of data we create by being online. While some actions use very small amounts of energy, like sending an email or doing a quick search, more data-intensive requests have a larger footprint and travel much further distances through numerous servers. A single bitcoin transaction consumes 819kWh, the same amount of energy could run a standard refrigerator for 8 months. 

When that electricity isn’t sourced from clean energy, it puts the demand on power sources that are huge producers of CO2 – like fossil fuels. The entire Bitcoin system produces 22 megatons of CO2 a year, the same footprint as a city like Las Vegas. Video streaming, the biggest CO2 culprit in online activity, has a larger annual carbon footprint than Spain.

But the biggest problem? Our digital footprint is growing rapidly. Digital power consumption is increasing by 9 per cent every year. At this rate, our digital carbon footprint could be responsible for as much as 14 per cent of global emissions by 2040.

Diagram 1: Breakdown of electricity consumption by US data centers.

The challenge: measuring our impact

Like a lot of tech companies, we’re passionate about climate solutions and moving toward net zero within our businesses. But we’ve noticed that while it’s easier to measure and offset things like office spaces, employee transportation, and even electronic waste – it’s a whole different ball game when it comes to measuring the full impact of our software products. 

When companies are measuring their environmental impact, greenhouse gas emissions are categorized into three “Scopes.” Scope 1 covers direct emissions, so company vehicle emissions or any fuel combustion. Scope 2 covers the indirect emissions a company produces through its purchase of generated energy like electricity, steam, or heating and cooling. 

Both Scope 1 and 2 are fairly easy to track and understand. Problems arise in Scope 3 which includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain. This gets tricky because there are so many variables to account for: employee commuting, purchased goods and services, transportation and distribution, investments, and the use of sold products. 

For tech companies, our digital carbon footprint becomes highly relevant in Scope 3 under “the use of sold products.” At Redbrick, we’re realizing that all the traffic passing across our brands, nearly 3000 people per minute, needs to be accounted for in our environmental impact – we’re not in the clear because our product isn’t physical.

But we need to better understand the digital carbon footprint of each of our software products and platforms: the emission impact of every byte of data that travels between us, our consumers, and their own customer base.

It’s a big ask. But in light of everything we now know, it would be irresponsible to claim we’re net zero without recognizing our largest contribution to emissions – our digital carbon footprint.

Facing a growing problem

There’s so much we can do to cover Scope 1 & 2 – and even Scope 3 – in terms of CO2 reduction and offset. At Redbrick we’ve partnered with Carbon Neutral Club to offset the carbon emissions of all of our employees. We’re also always looking for ways to actively reduce, instead of just offset, our footprint. Most recently we’ve rolled out a bike-to-work incentive for our employees, offering $500 annually for bike services, gear, or equipment.

Through our partnerships, we try to elevate voices and companies with environmental missions. For our branded materials, we’ve switched to working with Anian, a circular clothing company that uses recycled natural fibre textiles, and Brandigneous, a Victoria-based custom merch company that’s Indigenous-owned, socially conscious, and environmentally responsible. 

Another big step for us has been applying for our B Corp Certification. Its standards require us to demonstrate verified high social and environmental performance, as well as make actionable commitments to transparency, accountability, and real change. 

But we’re taking things a step further. 

Redbrick has partnered with the UVic INSPIRE program to create a solution that will help us better evaluate the carbon impact of digital activity.

A research team of graduate and undergraduate students will be working closely with Redbrick, developing a tool that will help businesses and consumers measure their digital carbon footprint.

Existing measurement tools generate vast underestimates because a system doesn’t exist that accounts for the variation in the number of servers a single byte of data can pass through between a data center and reaching our screens. 

With this challenge at the forefront, initial research by the Redbrick Inspire team has been modelling the digital carbon footprint of an average household:

Using a 200GB bandwidth per month produces nearly 3 tons of CO2 annually. For reference, a car produces an annual average of 4.6 tons of CO2.

We’ve been underestimating the scale of this issue – even at an individual level. The information this project is collecting and analyzing has a clear message: digital activity is a hugely under-recognized source of carbon emissions.

And this is just the beginning. Our team has more data to uncover and some exciting announcements down the road, so keep an eye out for news on this project – we can’t wait to loop you in on what we’re working on.

In the meantime, make sure to check out my new podcast, Someone Like You, officially launching today (Earth Day!). I dive into conversations with founders, business owners, and entrepreneurs who have consciously and successfully integrated sustainability into their business models.