The environmental footprint of digital technology is largely underestimated by its users, given the miniaturization of equipment and the “invisibility” of the infrastructures used.
As global demand for resources continues to grow, a sustainable future will depend on products with a circular life cycle, that is, highly recycled products that are made with renewable raw materials and energy.
Paper is well-positioned for the circular economy given its unique sustainable characteristics. So why are many companies, government agencies and media organizations encouraging us to “go green” by switching from paper to electronic communications? Clearly, these appeals to help the environment by eliminating paper-based communication are driven by the desire to cut costs, misguided marketing strategies, or both – not on sound science.
Paper is made with a renewable natural resource – trees that are purpose-grown, harvested and re-grown in sustainably managed forests. It is produced using mostly renewable, carbon-neutral bioenergy in a process that uses a lot of water but actually consumes very little of it. And paper is recycled more than any other material.
In contrast, electronic communication requires environmentally invasive drilling and mining for the finite raw materials needed to manufacture electronic devices and the massive server farms that support them. These devices and server farms are powered mostly by fossil fuel energy, and very few smartphones, tablets, laptops and computers get recycled.
By 2023, North America will have 345 million internet users (up from 328 million in 2018), 5 billion networked devices/connections (up from 3 billion in 2018), and 25% of all mobile-connected networked devices.
Previous calculations of ICT’s share of global greenhouse emissions, estimated at 1.8-2.8%, likely fall short of the sector’s real climate impact as they only show a partial picture. These prior estimates do not account for the full life cycle and supply chain of ICT products and infrastructure, such as the energy expended in manufacturing the products and equipment; the carbon cost associated with all of their components and the operational carbon footprint of the companies behind them; the energy consumed when using the equipment; and also their disposal after they have fulfilled their purpose. ICT’s true proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions could be around 2.1-3.9%, which are greater than those of the aviation industry, which are around 2% of global emissions.
The energy consumption required for digital technologies is increasing by 9% each year. Depending on the level of energy efficiency achieved, ICT could use as much as 51% of global electricity in 2030 and contribute up to 23% of globally released greenhouse gas emissions.
Data centers are one of the most energy-intensive building types, consuming 10 to 50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building. Collectively, these spaces account for approximately 2% of the total U.S. electricity use, and as the country’s use of information technology grows, data center and server energy use is expected to grow too.
Internet traffic was up globally nearly 30% in 2022, and demand for digital services is growing rapidly. Since 2010, the number of internet users worldwide has more than doubled, while global internet traffic has expanded 25-fold. The data centers and data transmission networks that underpin digitalization have led to rising energy use.
Several trends are shaping future data network electricity use. Global internet traffic more than doubled between 2017 and 2020, and could double again by 2023 if current trends are sustained. The nature of data transmission is changing rapidly, with mobile device traffic growing at triple the rate (+50%) of wired and Wi-Fi-only devices such as laptops and desktop computers (+17%). This shift towards greater mobile network use may also have significant implications for data transmission network energy usage, given that mobile networks have considerably higher electricity intensities (kWh/GB) than fixed-line networks at current traffic levels and network utilization.