How Does Tech Create a Carbon Footprint?

By Clare McKenzie
January 29, 2024
3 min read

The term “carbon footprint” is used to translate the net environmental impact of an action into the quantifiable metric of carbon emissions. Typically, a carbon footprint calculator adds up emissions from travel, electricity, and waste, asking questions about a daily commute to work or the amount of an energy bill. However, studies show one of the biggest contributors to carbon footprints is something that most people use every day without realizing its ecological impacts: technology.

As the tech sector continues to grow globally, digital carbon footprints are becoming an increasingly pressing concern in the fields of environmental conservation and sustainability. Digital carbon footprints are created from a wide range of online activities including streaming music, playing video games, downloading movies, and storing photos.  Streaming 30 minutes of television on a digital platform generates 1.6 kg of carbon, equivalent to driving 4 miles.  Meanwhile, uploading one photo to Instagram creates 5.06g of carbon. The scale at which these actions are being performed repeatedly by millions of technology users on a daily basis across the world indicates a future of dire conditions for the planet unless a shift occurs.

While the concept of emissions from digital actions is not intuitive, it can be explained fairly straightforwardly.  Technology relies on the electric power grid, and the United States’ power grid heavily relies on fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.  Most devices use electricity for their charge, but not as much electricity as it takes to store and send data.  In order to support the world wide web, buildings called data centers across the globe store all content that is downloaded or uploaded to the internet.  This data is all held by servers, which require massive amounts of energy to keep powered 24/7.  Data centers also need air conditioning to prevent overheating, lighting, and routine building maintenance, all of which increases total energy usage. In total, data centers are responsible for over 2% of the world’s electricity usage.  While two percent may not seem like much, these buildings and the servers inside emit more carbon than the entire airline industry—roughly 915 million tons.  This exorbitance is due to the amount of energy needed to support peak usage at all times. Both routers and servers use an excess of electricity because they always need to be available and operating for the highest possible user traffic, even when not in use.

Although the digital carbon footprint of individuals is only a fraction of total world carbon emissions, this proportion is increasing.  According to BBC, the global digital carbon footprint is expected to double by 2025.  Companies, especially ones in the technology and data fields, can help curb this growth by making more conscious choices about their software usage.

Not sure where to start? Find out how Ecolytics can help your company by signing up for our demo today. We calculate companies’ tech footprints as a portion of their total impact; the first step to reducing ecological harm. We then help companies become more efficient and carbon neutral to reduce costs and increase transparency for their customers and investors. It’s a win-win for your company and the planet.

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