Defining the Carbon-Footprint of the Digital Economy

This is the fourth article from our series dedicated to the release of the SDIA report:
The Utility of the Future – Where digital and energy infrastructure combine.
Download the executive summary here and stay informed about its full releases here.

Today, people spend a vast majority of their time using digital services. Contrast the digital economy with the transportation sector – we know the environmental footprint of a journey but the same can’t be said for digital services. The digital economy is a vast interconnected, global system – we must create a framework to quantify its environmental impact and set out the industrial goalposts required to reach our 2030 emission targets.

Defining the Metric and setting the Goalposts

It’s not that mankind is malicious, it’s that our decisions are blind to the environmental impact they cause. A simple, transparent measure of the environmental impact of the consumption of digital services would inform consumer decision making. In effect, it would put a physical price on the emissions created by digital services – the  first and most crucial step in re-prioritising the industry around net-positive digital services.

A “Digital Carbon-Footprint” would do more than simply create transparency. It would provide a different perspective which would alter the aims of the industry at large – changing the industries goalposts. The “Digital Carbon-Footprint” is a metric that would benchmark where we are right now, illuminating the goalposts we want to move towards, and the path to get there. It allows both consumers and providers to benchmark their progress, create milestones, improve behaviours and align interests. 

The potential of carbon accounting – a case study from the airline industry

The simple metrics of CO2 per flight, and CO2 per passenger km have brought a huge amount of transparency to an industry that was otherwise a large emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. It informed consumers through a simple, easily understandable metric. It benchmarked both the decisions of consumers and the performance of airlines. With this information, consumers were empowered to make informed decisions – “Is this flight worth the impact? Is this price worth the impact? Can I offset my impact? Has this provider made any progress since last year?”.

Aircraft today are 80% more efficient than they were in 1960, and by 2050 the environmental impact of the airline industry will be half of what it was in 2005. Transparent metrics are a powerful method to re-prioritise the industries’ goals without cutting off the industry at the knees. The airline industry is essential to the function of a modern society, and will directly contribute $1.5 trillion to world GDP by 2036. Far better to work towards net neutral goalposts by aligning industry and consumers around a mutually beneficial metric. For the airline industry, CO2 per flight is the metric, and “to half the 2005 emissions by 2050” are the industry’s goalposts. 

Digital Infrastructure is no exception

The Digital Economy is another essential industry of a modern society – the fastest growing industry in the world. Digital Infrastructure is the backbone of a digital economy and is becoming ever more vital to society and the economy. At over 1% of global energy consumption, data centers at the core of digital infrastructure have a significant impact. 

And yet for a large and fast growing industry we are mostly blind to its environmental impacts. In fact there is even less transparency than compared to the aviation or automobile industry. A gas tank is a clear representation of the potential environmental impact of driving the car. In the digital economy there is no tangible connection between the myriad of consumed digital services and the physical impact of provisioning those services. Digital Infrastructure has no goalpost, and no metric with which it can create transparency. 

Why is there no transparency in the digital economy?

There are a number of reasons why such a transparent metric does not currently exist:

  • Industrial Silos: The Digital Economy sits atop many different, siloed sub industries. Suppliers, manufacturers, designers, telecoms, and others are isolated, hence a measure of environmental impact, both embedded and operational, is very difficult to ascertain. Data is often commercially sensitive or confidential. The complex nature of the global, interconnected digital supply chain makes an all encompassing, accurate metric for environmental impact difficult to create.
  • Unmotivated Providers: It simply does not serve the interest of any element of the Digital Economy to make consumers aware of their environmental impact, such a measure might reduce demand for digital services. Consumer awareness currently runs counter to the business model of most digital companies, hence little progress has been attempted at measuring impact or informing consumers. 
  • Digital Complexity: Unlike most industries, digital services are decoupled from the physical consumption of resources. So assigning impact is very difficult by the nature of the digital service. An example is performing a Search on the Internet through your phone: is the energy consumption assigned to your phone’s battery? Or the data center where it was computed? And what of the energy expended while the data was transported over the telecommunication network? Digital services are, by nature, difficult to measure.
  • Hiding behind energy Utilities: Thus far digital infrastructure, and in particular data centers,  have successfully managed to hide their total environmental impact behind the veneer of green Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). Data centers would argue that they could be greener if the energy system generated greener baseload, whilst energy companies would argue that data centers should shift their workloads to hours when the grid is less carbon intensive.
  • Raw industrial growth: The digital economy is a young and fast growing industry. The market is not saturated like the airline industry’s, hence there exists no competitive pressure for providers to differentiate from one another on the basis of environmental efficiency. The total market is still growing, so there is no competitive pressure to capture a larger market share by differentiating with respect to the environment.

The Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance – bringing Transparency to the industry. 

The SDIA is working hard to deliver a Digital Carbon-Footprint that is easy to measure and accurately reflects the true carbon footprint and emission profile of digital services. However, there exists a large gap between the known and the unknown. Tying the known FLOP efficiency of compute hardware to the unknown environmental impact of an instagram photo is no small task. Governments, NGO’s, industrial associations and private companies must enter into dialogue, yet they have every business interest not to. The SDIA is changing that, and we’re working with a few bright sparks to deliver a truly transparent Digital Carbon-Footprint – the first step in making Digital Infrastructure Sustainable. Join us in creating the Digital Carbon Footprint by signing up here.

Mohan Gandhi

Mohan is Head of Research & Policy at the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance. The SDIA’s mission is to ensure digital infrastructure has a net zero impact on our environment, and is accessible and affordable to the next generation of innovators. As Head of Research & Policy Mohan leads the working groups in their attempts to solve major technical barriers to a truly sustainable digital infrastructure. Mohan authored the report “The Utility of the Future – Where Digital and Energy Infrastructure Combine”.

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