miércoles, 1 de marzo de 2017

The environment and the digital transformation

One of the legacies of the first days of the tech revolution is the generalised idea that the digital transformation of the economy and society would have a positive impact on the environment. The demateralisation of products, telecommuting and the shift from content property to content access are supposed to be factors that decrease the carbon footprint of human beings.

On the positive side, ICT decrease the environmental cost of collaboration among people in distant places. The GeSI report concludes that "increased use of information and communication technology (ICT) such as video conferencing and smart building management could cut the projected 2020 global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 16.5%, amounting to $1.9 trillion in gross energy and fuel savings and a reduction of 9.1 Gigatonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) of greenhouse gases".

However, the reduction of the carbon footprint produced by ICT has a consequence an increase of its weight in the global footprint of the humankind. In its classic book "How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything", Mike Berners-Lee (yes, the brother of the web inventor) estimated that the world's data centers in 2010 accounted for 130 million tons of CO2e, which it is equivalent to a quarter of a percent of the world's global total. Berners-Lee projected that the world's data centers will produce 250 to 340 million tons CO2e by 2020. Obviously, it would be worst without the usage of ICTs, but this figures are a call to invest in greener datacenters.

But it is also time to think in how our daily relationship with the digital technologies has an impact on the environment. As the average user consumes the major part of its connected time surfing its facebook account or searching in Google, at least each of us are generated around 2 kg of "digital" CO2 per year (269 grms from Facebook usage and 1,46 kgrs from Google usage). The figures are not so high if we thought  that the impact of boiling the water for our daily cup of coffee or tea is around 14 g of CO2 (5 kg of CO2 per year). 

Nevertheless, in other human customs it is not so clear that the digital transformation of our daily behaviour has a positive impact on the environment. This doubts are especially high in the shift from ownership to access in contents in products such as books and music. It is estimated that an e-reader has an enviromental impact equivalent to 30-60  paper books. Therefore, the positive or negative impact will depend on the lifetime of the e-reader (around three years) and the average books per year we read. Something similar could be said about music streaming. As the streaming of an album 27 times consume the same amount of energy as producing and shipping a CD, we can conclude that it would be better to buy our favourite records than listen them in Spotify.

Is this piece of writing a luddite call? It was not my intention. I consider that my personal and working life would be harder without the technology and will have a bigger impact in the environment. However, things are not so obvious as  look and sometimes we should think twice about the digital transformation of our habits if we would like to be respectful with the environment.

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