The Impact of Digital Content: Mitigating Your Carbon Emissions

Automatic Summary

Understanding the Environmental Impact of Digital Content

Welcome! In this digital world, have you ever wondered how much our digital content contributes to carbon emissions? It may sound a bit surprising, but the reality is - our digital content is not exactly free, clean or harmless. Each byte of data we create represents energy and every bit of energy has a carbon footprint.

The Energy Cost of Digital Innovation

Think about a typical day browsing the internet. Is your curiosity about the environmental impact of that action piqued yet? Well, it should be.

We often make the mistake of considering the energy cost of data in terms of storage. However, the real energy cost comes when we move data. For instance, when you download a 4MB webpage to multiple devices, three times the energy is required. The multiplication of this effect across hundreds of thousands or even millions of page views every year results in significant energy use and emissions.

Furthermore, as the climate impacts are forecasted to affect different communities disproportionately, it is our ethical obligation to mitigate our climate impacts where we can.

The Complicated Process of Measuring Energy of Data

How many kilowatt-hours of energy is required to transfer one gigabyte of data? Well, the definitive answer is complicated. Estimates vary widely from practically nothing to considerably substantial amounts.

Most sources, however, agree that while calculating energy use can be complex, the underlying principles remain consistent: Data equates to energy, and energy generates emissions!

App Downloads and Their Impact

  1. Apps and daily app usage are significant contributors to emissions. Generally, iOS apps are approximately five times larger in size than Android apps and hence require more energy to download and use.
  2. Additional emissions come from the actual use of these apps. A reported 15 minutes a day spent scrolling on Instagram can result in thousands of metric tons of emissions generated every day.

Emails and Their Carbon Footprint

Every email, despite its seemingly trivial size, contributes to the carbon footprint, especially when sent to millions of subscribers. Marketing emails, filled with heavy imagery and tracking data, increase their weight and, in turn, energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Videos and Streaming: Weighing the Pros and Cons

Videos, especially pointless ones, can generate massive emissions. Not every piece of information needs to be in the form of a video, which can be large and energy-intensive. Instead of mindlessly creating videos, a better question to ask would be: Does this add value for our audience?

Podcasts: A Surprising Carbon Offender

Just like apps and videos, podcasts also contribute to emissions considering their file sizes and the number of their listeners.

Is Reducing Digital Content's Carbon Footprint Possible?

Absolutely! By following some strategies, we can certainly reduce our organization's carbon footprint. Leaner web pages, smaller app sizes, shorter and less frequently published podcasts all contribute to reduced energy consumption.

Lighter pages aren't just environmentally friendly – they also download faster, providing a better user experience. As per a 2019 whitepaper, a one-second increase in web page download speed decreases conversion by 26%.

Final Thoughts

Reducing page weight not only reduces carbon emissions but also improves customer experience, increases conversion, and boosts profitability. As creators, we must consider the impact of what we create and how we communicate to minimize our environmental impact.

By being mindful and making informed decisions, we can contribute to a more sustainable digital world. So the next time you decide to create digital content, think: what's its environmental cost?

Video Transcription

OK. Uh Welcome and thanks for coming. I'm gonna start promptly because recording cuts off at exactly 20 minutes and I don't wanna lose time for questions at the end.Uh If you do have any questions, put them in the Q and A, but I will not uh answer those until the end because I don't do a terribly good job of reading and speaking simultaneously. So as someone who came of professional age alongside the internet, digital was kind of the ultimate in innovation and progress. It was going to be a shiny paperless sci-fi utopia right after all, digital was free and clean and harmless. Hm. Well, not exactly our digital content has a carbon footprint. Every bite of data that we create is nothing more than energy and energy. At least for the foreseeable future generates carbon emissions. It's hard to get this message across in the community of content and communications professionals.

I mean, surely it can't be that bad if it was, I would have heard about it already. And, and so the project briefs are generated for another app or a landing page with a huge stock art image that doesn't actually show what the organization does think of all of those uh websites that you see with, you know, person looking at their mobile phone or the banks on the banks hope page or the person pointing at a white board for a software company.

Right? So several years ago, I tried to step outside of the content community into the world of sustainability because surely someone was talking about it there, right? But what I found were an increasing number of data intensive digital solutions to sustainability problems.

We're going to create an app, a podcast youtube channel and Instagram feed or like God Forbidden NFT to build engagement, machine learning and Blockchain or all the tools that we need to solve this crisis. Whether the problem is poverty or education, cycling or climate didn't really matter.

The solution is always digital. We're just gonna tech our way out of this mess. But by throwing more tech at the problem, we're creating an even bigger problem. We need to be cautious when we consider the media that drives home. Our message as my mother always said, it's not what we say but how we say it that truly matters. So when we're talking about this, we need to really think of this, not in terms of storage but of transfer. People think of data always in terms of storage in terms of the data center. What is the cost for that website, that video or that app to sit in the data center. Given the fact, the economic cost of storage is rapidly decreasing over time. We expect it to be low after all the cost to store a four megabyte home page is minimal, right? But it's not the energy required just for storing that four megabyte web page. Just like the junk stashed away in your attic. There's limited energy needed for it to just sit there. The real energy comes when you have to move it. So let's say that you download that information to your phone, to your tablet and your laptop. You need to move 12 megabytes of data, four megabytes, three times, three times the energy, three times the emissions. What about 200,000 hits.

And with most web websites, we're looking at tens of thousands, possibly even millions of hits each year gigabytes upon gigabytes of data transferred hundreds of thousands who kill a lot of hours of energy used to move them suddenly. We're looking at some serious numbers in terms of energy use and emissions. And with the IPCC reports, forecasting dramatic and widespread impacts of climate change, you know, impacts that we're already starting to feel there's really no time to lose in terms of reducing energy and emissions.

The impacts of climate change are going to be unevenly felt with more dramatic consequences experienced by women, those experiencing poverty, poverty and homelessness and in minority communities, black indigenous populations of color, we have an ethical obligation to mitigate our climate impacts where we can.

So how do we measure the energy of data? Well, complicated. I've spent countless hours researching this one seemingly basic question because you figure it'd be easy, right? How many kilowatt hours of energy is required to transfer one gigabyte of data? And answers vary from a lot to not much to um it depends on how you measure it, but all sources agree on one thing. It's complicated. One study from 2012 estimates that you use 5.12 kilowatt hours of giga energy per gi gigabyte of data. I've used that energy in my calculations until about mid 2 2022. Others suggest it's more than 100 kilowatt hours while others estimate as being just, you know, basically nothing at 0.06 kilowatt hours per gigabyte. So sustainable web web does a really good job of explaining their rationale and research behind their website calculator. And I recommend that you take a look at that if you haven't already, uh they've settled on a fairly comprehensive number that includes IP core networks and the access networks which are included most calculations, but also the cables, the data centers, the networking equipment, and even the devices in your home or office.

Um So basically anything from large scale infrastructure right down to the end point and that gives them a final number of 0.81 kilowatt hours per gigabyte that they use for their calculations. So that's what I'm gonna build on uh 1.81 kilowatt hours per gigabyte that from sustainable web Because the logic there makes sense to me. But what we do know is that most of the world is using energy that is at least partially generated by fossil fuels, fossil fuels, generate carbon emissions. And so we need to make some estimates and come up with an average different devices and applications are going to draw energy differently. So again, we need to establish an average and emissions vary based on the intensity of the draw at the energy grid at any given time of the day. And again, you guessed it, we need to come up with an average. But we should all be aware that there are studies and data that can reinforce almost any agenda, higher or lower. You may be confronted with different and conflicting mathematical assumptions to reinforce a political agenda.

But note the underlying principles are sound data equals energy energy equals emissions and therefore data has an emissions cost, there's just no getting around it. So it's important to note that while we're increasing our ability to generate renewable energy, humanity is also using more energy than we have ever before. Our world has more than doubled its energy consumption in the past four decades. According to our world and data, we consumed 89 87,000 terawatt hours give or take in 1980 which jumped to 100 and 73,000 terawatt hours in 2019 1 terawatt hour is a billion kilowatt hours. So I've deliberately chosen 2019 as the last prepa year because everything's been weird since and it's hard to make accurate direct comparisons. So as we're increasing our percentage of renewable energy in that little line, you see there, we're also increasing our total consumption.

So it's limiting the amount of headway that we're making on a true green energy transition. Digital content is driving a lot of that for approximately 90% of the energy generated in the US that energy creates greenhouse gas emissions. We can use less energy during the transitional period to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are generated by fossil fuels. So let's put this in some context and run numbers. One of my clients had a very image intensive home page. It was heavier than average 5.9 megabytes and lo stock art, images of health care providers doing generic things. You you've seen those pictures, right? Like someone in a surgical mask, talking to someone else in a surgical mask in a hallway or uh you know, a picture of these, you know, people, people meeting in a in a conference room but you know, nothing that actually showed any of the products or the services in action. No objection to imagery. I mean, I like a pretty picture as much as the next person. But what value do these generic images add for the customer when we're selling a product or service. So we cut the page weight in half, eliminating lots of the unnecessary images and converting others to new photos that actually showed products in action. They conveyed actual meeting and added context for the user experience and the UX improvements, you know, made a difference, right?

Even with major changes, it was still very image intensive and it looked like what you would expect from a modern website design. So we reduced the web page rate by half about 2.95 megabytes multiplied by the 1.7 million hits a year means we avoided the transfer of 5000 give or take gigabytes of data using the 0.81 kilowatt hour per gigabyte of data that we've talked about already. We avoided 4000 kilowatt hours of energy or 2.9 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. It's roughly the same emissions as driving from Lisbon to Moscow and back in a passenger car, reducing the page weight, improve the download times. Presented users with more info information, more relevant information and significantly minimized energy use and emissions. And that's just for the home pages. I mean, think about what that impact could be when you extrapolate that across a site that has dozens or hundreds of pages in many cases, less is more my phone is loaded with apps. There are two factors to consider when you're weighing an app, the size of the app itself and the amount of data that it uses, there are more worldwide users of Android than iphone, but I OS apps are approximately five times the size of Android apps.

So when you start doing the math on them, uh it's been reported that and using Instagram as an example, it's been reported that uh there are 2 billion active Instagram users each month doesn't account for inactive app holders or those who downloaded the app and deleted it later.

So we're just gonna use that 2 billion numbers around happy number and estimates say the Android app is about 30 megabytes. So that would be about 1.4 billion downloads. Uh The iphone app size is 220 megabytes downloaded approximately 600 million times. It gives totals of 34 million kilowatt hours and 100 and 70 million kilowatt hours respectively together. That's more than 61,000 metric tons of emissions in app downloads. Obviously, there are additional emissions that come from the use of these apps. Uh Reports say that 15 minutes a day spent scrolling Instagram uses approximately 10 me megabytes of data per minute. That's 100 and 5000 metric tons of emissions generated each day. My personal email address which I've had for more than 25 years is an absolute disaster. Do I need another email from anyone? Especially a retailer? My inbox says no, but what about that email from a streaming provider? Telling me what's coming soon. Estimates say that emails are only 75 kilobytes on average. However, average is a little misleading in the same way that averaging the net worth of someone in poverty with the average worth of Jeff Bezos, which was reported at 136 billion in September would mistakenly suggest that everyone is, in fact a multibillionaire, we send tons of plaintext emails every day but marketing emails of course, are heavier with imagery and tracking data increasing their weight.

But for the sake of argument, we're gonna use the lowball estimate for corporate emails and say that 75 kilobytes is our standard. And at that size, each email seems trivial enough, right? But when you extrapolate that over 200 million subscribers from a streaming provider, each email blast adds up quickly. That's 15,000 gigabytes of data transferred in each email blast at 0.81 kilowatt hours per megabyte gigabyte. Um 12,000 kilowatt hours of energy used each week generating 5.3 metric tons of emissions. But these are weekly emails over the span of a year. That's the equivalent of adding nearly 59 passenger cars to the road just to tell us about a new season of a show or suggesting that I watch something that I've already seen. There are of course times when video is an indispensable tool for walking customers through setup or use or maintenance of a product or service there are also times when video is used for video's sake as we saw on the pivot to video trend that was driven by Facebook half a decade ago just because it can be a video doesn't mean it should be a two minute youtube HD quality video has a file size of about 100 and 15 megabytes had a client who was hoping for 100,000 views uh for a vanity video, the smiling employee faces in conference rooms and on factory floors across their social media and email marketing campaign and their website, if they had met their click targets, that would amount to 11,000 gigabytes of data transferred at the 0.81 calculation that would use about nine 1000 kilowatt hours of energy or four metric tons of emissions about the same as driving a passenger car for a year.

But what's the value for the user? Right? If we're not showing something that's of use, why are we doing it? It's value for marketing and value for management, but it's not value for the user. So if we're putting our our attention into video, let's put it into something that's more useful like a product setup or a troubleshooting video. I'm not suggesting that we never create or watch streaming videos. I mean video plays a large role in our lives, but I am hoping that this spurs us to action to consider a very important question before we do. Does this add value for our audience podcasts also have an emissions impact. I'll use the calculator from podcast hosting company Blueberry to estimate the file sizes and relative impacts. Uh It's incredibly difficult to get an accurate independent read on the number of listeners, but some approximate data is available. I'm gonna use the Office Ladies Podcast because they publish data which made it really easy to solve. Um The Office Ladies Podcast Bridge is where Jenna Fisher, who played Pam Beasley and Angela Kinsey, who played Angela Martin recap episodes of the TV, show the Office. And in December 2021 they reported that they had had 200 million total downloads of episodes of at least an hour in length.

So 45 megabytes each, we can estimate that as of this date, the podcast transferred 9 million gigabytes of data and used 7 million kilowatt hours of energy and contributed to about 3000 metric tons of emissions since they launched in 2019. So if we average that out to assume an even number of downloads per episode, 100 and tw two episodes in December 21 to 2021 that works out to be about 3031 metric tons of emissions per episode or driving nearly seven passenger cars for a year per episode of podcast. As with all communications tools, I'm not advocating eliminating any from your repertoire of options, but the important thing is to remember to use them efficiently and effectively leaner web pages, smaller app sizes, shorter or less frequently published podcasts, all reduce your organization's carbon footprint. So congratulations.

You now have a new set of metrics for justifying content design choices with management. But this isn't all tree hugging and granola lighter pages download faster. In a 2019 white paper on retail best practices. Akamai talked about the speed of web page downloads and the corresponding speed with which impatient customers will abandon your site. Faster pages mean a better user experience. The paper notes, this translates into better conversion rates and better profitability. Akamai reported that a one second increase in download speed decreased conversions by 26%. If your web page is 456 megabytes or more, your organization is leaving money on the table. So reducing page weight, not only reduces carbon emissions, it also improves your customer experience increases conversions and boost profitability and also it's good for the planet. So, so think before you create, use these metrics to help you identify new ways to justify accessible usable design choices to management, consider the impact of what you create and how you communicate to minimize your environmental impact. So, thank you for attending. Um I'm gonna go to the Q and A now but if you'd like to follow up afterwards, my virtual door is always open at clarifying complex and I do look forward to speaking with you. Let me take a look.

Um Is it possible to apply Blockchain to track the digital emissions. Yes, but by tracking the additional emissions with Blockchain, you're also using more digital stuff. So it's causing more emissions. So it depends, uh what, where your priorities are on that. Um But yes, it is.

Uh, it is definitely an option. Uh, but you can, you can, you can calculate uh manually and it will get you the same results. Can we assume that using Android phones? Android phones is more sustainable than iphones? Um Yes, in that the uh the the the app size is smaller. Um However, you know, when you're, when you're looking at this in the bigger picture too, you've got to look at the cost and impact of devices and uh production and recycling and that's a bigger picture that I don't know all the details on. Um because I mean production to, you know, to end of life discussion is, is is complicated and large as well. So, um but uh if you're looking for more information about life cycle of uh devices, I recommend looking into the work of Jerry mcgovern. Uh he wrote a book called Worldwide Worldwide Waste. And um it's a very good book and he, he gets into these uh you know, these, these types of conversations, uh we will have emissions always in the digital world. True. Uh There is not such a thing like reaching Net 0 CO2 in this industry. Um Well, I mean net zero is one thing uh absolute zero is, is, is something else, right? We're never going to completely eliminate it, but net zero is an accounting measure.

Um So it's about offsets and uh you know, and, and compromises. Um So we could potentially reach net zero by reducing, you know, other things in, you know, to balance it out. But uh that doesn't mean that we're going to reach absolute zero. No, no, that's not gonna happen. Uh is streaming causing the same impact as download. Uh Yes, in the same sense because you're, you're, you're, you're transferring that data. It's the cost to transfer the data, um you know, per gigabyte, you know, so the kilowatt hours per gigabyte of data and you are using the energy to transfer. So you are still transferring that, that data regardless. Um If you have any other questions, let me know. I have uh less than a minute to go. But if, if there's anything you can squeak in, well, let me know and I'll answer that and otherwise, uh thank you so much for attending and uh I look forward to hearing from you offline.