Moving from paper to digital is good for the environment. Right?
Well, kinda. When it comes to the decision between print vs screen, we should really be making our design decisions based on which means of communication is going to be most effective, but at the same time, the whole lifecycle of the product needs to be evaluated and optimised to reduce it’s negative impact on the environment. While print products require physical resources (ink, paper, transportation, printers, binding materials and glues, finishes) and cause more obvious hazards (eg. chemicals used in inks, paper sizing, finishing, binding), digital solutions are by no means the prince on the white horse.
Most estimates put carbon emissions from the internet, and data centres to be responsible for between 1 and 2% of total global carbon emissions. That’s comparable to aviation, or shipping. Or Canada, or Germany.
But how, you ask?
Well, apart from you using a device that uses electricity (and this device having been produced with rare earths and it becoming an environmental and human health hazard at the end of its lifecycle), every interaction you have online means a data transfer, and the data your device requests and sends most be stored (or hosted) somewhere.
The total global data created, captured, copied and consumed by 2020 is estimated at 59 zettabytes.
No idea what a zetta byte is?
A byte is a unit of digital information and most commonly consists of 8 bits. Historically, the byte was the number of bits used to encode a single character of text in a computer and for this reason, it is the smallest addressable unit of memory in many computer architectures. A thousand bytes makes a kilobyte – so far, so good. That’s about the measure of what fit on a floppy disk, if you’re old enough to remember those. A thousand KB make a megabyte, we’re now at a level of songs and images. Images on the web would be at a couple hundred KB, images straight out of a camera are at about 5-50MB. A thousand MB then make a gigabyte, we’re now at a level of movies for example.
At a thousand gigabyte, we’re talking about terabyte, which you might have heard of when buying a hard drive in the last few years. A thousand TB make a petabyte – which we don’t come across in a regular household. Add three more zeros and you get to an exabyte. But you’ll need a thousand of those to make up a zettabyte.
Now try and imagine that not only do we have over 59 zettabytes stored right now, but this is our forecast:
By 2025, we’ll already be at 175 zettabytes. This trend is consistent and stands in correlation with the globally rising population and amount of people with internet access, the rising internet connection speed which allows for a lot more and faster traffic.
In economics, the Jevons paradox occurs when technological progress or government policy increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand, and it explains the exponentially rising data consumption and creation quite well:
But we have, especially due to the pandemic, learned that it is not just a matter of wanting fast and convenient and 24/7 reliable data transfer, but we have become very dependent on it, and this dependence is set to increase just as much.
Free cloud space is being thrown at us left and right, while our devices can store more and more as well, and our phones take photos ten times as large as a few years ago, and our livelihoods and educational systems depend on reliable video streaming and constant availability. What we are forcing on our planet while setting up these systems is dangerous, and we are doing it -yet again- without considering or talking about the consequences.
The bottom line
Each device transmits and receives information to a server somewhere in a data centre, which requires power 24/7/365. Few of these data centres are powered by renewable energy. Each message we send out digitally as designers (or consumers) has an impact: It weighs data and it costs energy. Let’s send our digital behaviour to fat camp!