The hidden climate cost of tech
Digital technologies have advanced faster than any other innovation in our history, reaching nearly half of the world’s population in just a couple of decades. They have enormous potential to achieve a more prosperous, sustainable and equitable world; however, the environmental cost could be high. Digital transformation brings many opportunities to society, but it also implies an increase in energy consumption through the use of devices, distribution networks and data centers; the extraction of resources and the generation of waste associated with the manufacture and disposal of electronic devices; emissions and other environmental impacts.
- The technology industry is estimated to be responsible for 3.5 – 4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, ranking above sectors such as air transport.
- Artificial Intelligence could consume a tenth of the world’s electricity in 2025.
- The ICT sector is currently responsible for 10% of total electricity consumption in the European Union (EU) and 4% of their CO2 emissions.
Is Bitcoin bad for the planet?
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies require large amounts of energy, due to the complex, energy-intensive computations needed for mining. The latest estimates show that the bitcoin network uses as much energy in one year as the country of Argentina. 65% of bitcoin miners are located in China, which generates most of its energy from coal, and up to 74% of bitcoin’s energy needs come from renewable sources, although these figures are disputed. However, not all cryptocurrencies have a significant environmental footprint or even use mining.
How to minimise your digital carbon footprint
It’s hard to know exactly what we can do as individuals to reduce our own digital carbon footprint. According to Forbes, 77% of people want to learn how to live more sustainably, with 93% showing genuine concern for the environment.
Here are 10 easy steps for a cleaner digital routine:
- Clean your inbox. Data centres use billions of litres of water to cool down computers. 60 percent of emails are never opened and each email stored emits 10g of CO2 into the atmosphere. Cleanfox can help you detect newsletters, unsubscribe from unwanted messages and categorise your inbox.
- Search green. Google makes over €140bn every year in ad revenue from searches. Green search engines, like Ecosia, use revenue to plant trees and fund environmental initiatives.
- Don’t buy the latest model. Avoid creating electronic waste by buying second hand, less powerful devices and charge them less frequently.
- Avoid streaming. Streaming is responsible for millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. Opting to download rather than stream means you’ll pull the data from the server only once.
- Adjust power settings. Set your computer to go into sleep or hibernate to conserve energy. Shut down your computer and turn off your monitor and printer when not in use.
- Lower monitor brightness. Dimming your monitor from 100% to 70% can save up to 20% of the energy the monitor uses.
- Use tracking protection. Setting your preferences to the Strict setting will block most data transfers and processing so less energy is being used.
- Correctly dispose of old gadgets. Don’t just leave it in a drawer or throw it away. Look for your closest recycling or pick-up service before getting rid of your devices.
- Find alternatives to cloud computing. Every photo, video and file you save is stored on the cloud over and over again and that consumes energy each time. Regularly cleaning up and deleting useless files saves energy. USB sticks or hard drives are a cleaner alternative.
- Install an ad-blocker. Ad-blockers stop adverts from appearing while you’re on the internet, which makes the pages load faster and uses fewer resources.
Could AI be the answer to the climate emergency?
While many emerging technologies have a high environmental cost, artificial intelligence may hold the keys to a more sustainable future. With climate change representing an existential threat to both natural habitats and human communities around the world, AI researchers and practitioners are pooling resources towards solving the climate emergency.
- Climate Change: AI can help us understand patterns in big data, improve our climate change models and understand the impact humans are having on the planet. Along with satellite data it can help to forecast weather, soil and water conditions and predict droughts and extreme weather conditions.
- Pollution: Using data from vehicles, radar sensors and cameras AI can help improve air pollution by recording and analysing air quality and environmental data in real-time.
- Energy: Machine learning can optimize energy generation and demand in real-time. For example, smart sensors and meters can be deployed to collect data and optimize energy usage in buildings.
- Biodiversity: AI can detect changes in land, vegetation, forests, and the impact of natural disasters. Invasive or vulnerable species can be monitored, identified and tracked. AI can gather data from locations that are hard or impossible to reach. AI-powered robots can be used to monitor ocean conditions such as pollution levels, temperature and pH.
- Farming: Combining AI with local knowledge about agriculture can help farmers produce more food by making better decisions about what techniques to use for soil and weather conditions.
- Urban planning: AI can analyse data from social media and microsensors placed around cities, revolutionising urban planning and helping cities become more resilient to climate.
- Circular economy: AI can help design products that can be more easily recycled.
AI could help create a prosperous future, but the hard task will be for policymakers to ensure that it is developed responsibly. There are two key challenges that need to be addressed. The first is inequality: investment costs are high and a lack of infrastructure and education could leave many people behind. The second is bias: AI often leads to significant unintended consequences such as racial and gender discrimination, due to algorithmic bias. This issue could also impact environmental decision making. AI does not always make the best decisions and it can replicate past mistakes if datasets are incorrect or incomplete.
For information about why AI should be at the top of Spain’s climate change agenda, please download our report: