Thanks to a growing body of research, we start to have a much better understanding of the environmental footprint of digital services, spanning data centres that host them, networks that carry them and devices to interact with them. And the footprint appears to be large and growing rapidly. In 2020, life cycle emissions from the digital sector, including production, use and disposal, have generated between 1.2 and 2.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). This corresponds to 2.1 - 3.9% of total global emissions, exceeding, aviation, a sector that is under a lot of pressure to decarbonise.
Furthermore, carbon emissions are not the only environmental impacts the digital sector produces. Extraction of materials used in electronic equipments, consumption of water and soil by data centres and networks, increasing volumes of electrical and electronic waste, estimated to be nearly 57 million tonnes in 2019, of which only about 17% is properly recycled, cause widespread pollution, depletion, degradation and public health issues.However, awareness of digital environmental footprint and knowledge of measures to contain and reduce it are still not that developed across society and the business world.
Impact of intangible processes
In industry, the pursuit of sustainability is primarily focused on material aspects of the production process and in particular on the ﬂow of materials, pollutants, energy, water, waste, and the logistics linking suppliers to end customers. Energy efficiency measures, renewable energies, industrial process and transport electriﬁcation are deployed to contain greenhouse gas emissions. The demand for raw materials, chemicals and water is reduced through the circular collection, recovery and recycling of waste and end-of-life products. Whenever possible, polluting products are replaced, or managed in such way as to prevent their leakage into the environment.
It is instead still rather uncommon that attention be turned to processes that are perceived as intangible, such as the ﬂow of data connecting production to suppliers, customers, prospects, and the different functions within the company to each other. Data flows, transmitted from one server to another over the network, processed and stored in large, powerful data centres, take place in the so-called cloud, which contrary to its name, has nothing immaterial about it.
The cloud is firmly planted on the ground, covering hundreds of thousands of square metres of land with warehouses housing thousands of servers operating 24/7. Its data centres consume terawatts of electricity to receive, process, store and transmit zettabytes of data, but also millions of litres of water for cooling, keeping humidity and temperature constant at around 28°C. And the cloud is built into the ground and in the air through millions of kilometres long network of cables, millions of antennas and thousands of satellites, as well as millions of routers, billions of modems and devices that receive, dispatch and transmit data. Thus, behind its apparent immateriality, the ﬂow of data conceals a ﬂow of matter, energy and water with multiple impacts on the environment that require targeted and speciﬁc interventions to be brought under control and reduced.
We asked ourselves to what extent companies that are pursuing product sustainability excellence are also working towards reducing the environmental footprint of their digital activities. The question has arisen from many meetings with leading companies in sustainability and many conversations around the topic of digital ecology that suggest low awareness of digital environmental issues, systematic underestimation of digital impacts and scant knowledge of design methodologies to assess and cut down digital environmental footprint.
We felt it was important to raise awareness, especially among those who are already deeply committed to environmental sustainability, about digital footprint and the measures that can be included in sustainability plans to reduce the environmental impact of digital activities
To test the hypothesis that a gap exists between material sustainability and digital sustainability, we identified a sample of leading product sustainability companies and measured the carbon footprint of their digital presence. As proof of leadership in product sustainability, we took the fact that a company had obtained EU Ecolabel certification for one or more of its products.
As indicator of digital sustainability, we measured the carbon footprint of each company's digital presence using two of the most advanced open source tools available today to calculate a web site CO2 emissions: an International tool, Website Carbon Calculator, and its Italian version, Siti Green, that uses local electricity carbon intensity in the computation.
In this way, we have being able to determine how many of the leading Italian companies have also a sustainable digital presence, meaning a) that, every time their website homepage is viewed, it releases significantly less CO2 than the International median of 0.8 grammi di CO₂ per page recorded in July 2023 and b) that their website is hosted in data centres powered by renewable energy. We have chosen to focus on the home page because it is generally the most linked and viewed page, and represents the "business card" of the company. We start from the hypothesis that a company committed to sustainability takes also into consideration its digital footprint, and runs a low-impact web site hosted in a low-emission server farm.
Sixty-three are the Italian companies who have been awarded the renowned ecological certification label EU Ecolabel (based on ISO 14024:2018) for one or more of their products. The label was established by the European Commission in the early 90s to identify products and services of low environmental impact at all stages of their life cycle, from production to use and disposal. Only some product categories can obtain the label, such as detergents, clothing and textiles, paper, furniture, footwear and personal hygiene. And to obtain the label, the products have to satisfy criteria related to energy efficiency, recycled and recyclable content, hazardous substances, durability and reusability.
Turning now to the home pages of these sixty-three businesses' websites, we find a large disparity in terms of their CO2 emissions. There are home pages that generate more than 5 grams of CO₂, every time they open, that is, over six times the median value, and other home pages that generate about 0,10 grams of CO₂, that is eight times less than the median value. Twenty-six have emissions above the median, between 5,34 g/CO₂ and 0,80 g/CO₂, while only two home pages generate significantly lower emissions, below 0,20 g/CO₂. All other home pages are between 0,79 and 0,23 g/CO₂.
Regarding website hosting, twenty-eight firms don't use a server farm powered by renewable energy, while twenty-five do. Contrary to what we expected, the two indicators do not necessarily go hand in hand. High-impact home pages are hosted on green server farms and low-impact home pages are hosted in server farms that don't use renewable energy. This finding suggests the lack of an overall strategy to ensure a sustainable web presence.
What can be done
These initial results show that, today, commitment to material sustainability rarely extends out to embrace digital sustainability, even though we know how the environmental footprint of digital presence can be significantly reduced. Low-impact digital design minimises the data flow from data centres to terminals every time pages are requested, making at the same time viewing faster and more focused, maintaining the web site simpler and bringing down hosting costs.
The choice of a sustainable data centre, that not only is powered by electricity from certified renewable sources, but also uses efficient cooling systems and extends equipments' useful life, further contributes to reducing the environmental footprint of one's digital presence.
By undertaking these two relatively minor transformations, when compared to the much more complex transformations to make manufacturing processes and systems, companies can also minimise the environmental footprint of their digital operations.
Immagine: Johnson Wang, Unsplash
© all rights reserved