By Nayah Thu (she/her)
This week, the OCS was joined by Professor Mike Hazas of Uppsala University, and George Kamiya from the international energy agency (IEA) to discuss the environmental impacts of our digital lives. Mike Hazas researches the invisible energy use of digital activities, and George Kamiya is a digital analyst at the IEA who has authored several pieces on clean energy transitions.
How do you spend your evening?
Mike Hazas kicked off his presentation by asking the audience to go through a typical afternoon. He highlighted the role of digital technology in our daily lives from reading the news on the way home, through listening to music while training, to calling someone or watching a recipe while making dinner, and watching a movie or reading online before bed.
He cited studies that put digital technology as accounting for 9% of global electricity use, and 3% of carbon emissions – that’s comparable to plane travel. And unlike aviation, he pointed to projections that conclude that this number might double in years to come. If emissions from planes were to rise that drastically, we would be concerned. In his eyes, the same should apply here.
Making energy part of the debate.
Mike Hazas then asked: why do we use the internet?. He came up with a tidy list:
Choosing the right projections
George Kamiya chose a different tack. He look at the increase in digital use versus the increase in emissions for the past decades. While data centers do take up 1% of global electricity generation, his examples show that their efficiency has also improved greatly. The same goes for streaming services and other energy-guzzling parts of our digital lives. While he agreed that, according to the Andrae and Eder 2015 study also cited by Hazas, a tsunami of data could consume a fifth of global electricity by 2025, this is unlikely to happen. Andraes’ later studies put this worst-case scenario much lower, as does the IEA’s own research.
Kamiya also pointed to the importance of energy use in hardware production. Increasingly in-demand metals are mined in geopolitically sensitive areas, and the smaller/more efficient the device is, the more of its net carbon footprint comes from production. While Kamiya cautioned against focusing too much on small, consumer actions, stretching out your smartphone life is a good first step to take.
He also raises doubt about the help of low-resolution streaming, smart bulbs and other “energy-saving” digital inventions. In his view, you can’t equate data to energy, and energy-efficient vacuum cleaners or other household products are likely to be used more, offsetting any energy benefits. We don’t really have the counterfactuals to work with, which is why measuring the continuing impact of the digital transition on emissions is very difficult. For example, while teleworking is likely to have a net positive in terms of transport emissions, it might lead to urban sprawl as people seek larger houses. While energy-hungry bitcoin is driving up the demand for renewables, when this demand gets too high, it may end up being the reason that coal-power plants remain profitable.
The two speakers came at the problem from different angles and drew differing conclusions. However, both agreed: the debate on digital energy use is one worth having.