“If you look at its entire life cycle, just sending a 1-megabyte email is equivalent to using a 60-watt light bulb for 25 minutes (Françoise Berthoud, computer technician at the Gricad research center)
Belief in a “virtual” world is probably one of the biggest illusions of our time.The Internet is not intangible, and digital pollution is a very real thing. It’s very easy to forget that supporting Internet requires building and maintaining thousands of data centers to store information, miles of networks to carry it, and millions of computers, tablets, and smartphones to connect to them. Obviously, this comes with a cost.
But how big? And how can we make it smaller?
The Bottomless Well of Digital Technology
The digital sector accounts for 4.2% of the world’s primary energy consumption and emits 3.8% of all greenhouse gases. What does that mean? It means that its ecological footprint is two to three times larger than all of France. And that’s not all, because it will double by 2025 if we continue to consume so much, according to a Green IT study (October 22, 2019).
30% by data centers (not counting the energy needed to cool the electronic circuits and keep the processors from overheating as they run).
40% by networks, the “information highways”.
Rare Earths: An Environmental and Geopolitical Issue
Although this system needs energy to run, it also needs a body. Much like energy, the quantity of metals used in electronic components only keeps going up. A smartphone now contains about 40 metals and rare-earth elements, twice as much as a decade ago.
Metals and rare earths in one smartphone
However, extracting these materials pollutes, transporting them for assembly pollutes, and their end of life pollutes.
What does this pollution look like? Rivers contaminated by toxic waste, acid rain, destruction of local biodiversity, and early cancer, to name some examples.
As if that weren’t enough, the market for these materials is a highly sensitive geopolitical issue. The extraction of these strategic resources has gradually become a Chinese monopoly, as that country controls 97% of rare-earth production.
How can you fight digital pollution?
But then who’s to blame? China? The data centers? The device makers? Us, the users? One thing is certain, we have a few things to say about the consumption of some 34 billion digital devices worldwide.Slowing the production of new devices by using the ones we have for longer, avoiding excessive equipment, and buying refurbished are all ways to take action.Cleaning up our use of the web is another one.
Here are a selection of effective ways to reduce digital pollution: