Digital Legacies: Emissions

Julius Wiedemann discusses the intertwined issues of advancing technology and carbon-intensive development models, alongside their repercussions on the climate & energy crises.

by Julius WiedemannPublished on : Feb 15, 2022

Our economic and technological development depend a lot on the availability of energy. We need it for everything. When we wake up in the morning, probably the first thing that we do now is to check for updates on phones. The news last week that nuclear fusion might be viable somewhere in the future, not near though, has brought a lot of hope for the industries. But more than that it has also brought hope for the environment. And we are very often too quick to make this assumption that everything digital is automatically environment friendly. We have now created myths about energy consumption in Blockchain and Cryptocurrency markets. According to many reports, cryptocurrencies indeed consume a lot of energy because of the process of validation, which requires a lot of computing power. Blockchain, on the other hand, incorporates a number of different technologies that not necessarily consume a lot of energy. But attention will be needed in every aspect of energy consumption. According to Data Driven Lab, “Examples of how blockchain can support and accelerate climate action are Yale Openlab’s OpenClimate, the World Bank Climate Warehouse, the Blockchain for Climate Foundation, the Climate Ledger Initiative, and the Climate Chain Coalition, amongst others.” A collective effort for conservation and for recuperation of the environment is on the way in every instance.

A major hindrance to climate action is the debate over wasteful energy consumption in support of contemporary lifestyles | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
A major hindrance to climate action is the debate over wasteful energy consumption in support of contemporary lifestyles Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

The fight for the environment is also a debate about our lifestyles. Give and take, global CO2 emissions are divided more or less as such: 25 per cent for electricity and heat production, 21 per cent for industries, 24 per cent for agriculture and other types of land use, 14 per cent for transportation, six per cent for buildings (Note: emissions from electricity use in buildings are excluded and are instead covered in the Electricity and Heat Production sector), and the rest 10 per cent from various sources. This panorama of energy consumption gives us an idea of the environment in regards to the use of energy and associated CO2 emissions. And that the solutions have to come from everywhere. Some myths will have to be debunked. It is not just because something is electric that it is automatically environment friendly. For instance, an electric car can use energy that was produced with fossil fuels, making it not a zero-sum alternative. Those percentages compared to traditional cars will depend on the energy production grid in countries. According to the BBC, “Researchers say average “lifetime emissions” from electric cars are up to 70 per cent lower than petrol cars in countries like Sweden and France (where most electricity comes from renewables and nuclear), and around 30 per cent lower in the UK. Research from the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen in The Netherlands and Cambridge has demonstrated that in 95 per cent of the world, using an electric car is better for the environment than a patrol car.

The advent of smartphones and other digital tools in daily life is only adding to the problem of high energy demands from non-renewable sources | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
The advent of smartphones and other digital tools in daily life is only adding to the problem of high energy demands from non-renewable sources Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Information technology and digital communications such as mobile phones and laptops consume roughly two per cent of the world's energy, or about the same as the airline industry, with mobile networks representing between one half and one quarter of that total, according to GreenTouch. While we are being very vigilant and trying to diminish the impact of CO2 emissions in regard to transportation, we are increasing the amount of digital tools that we are using in our daily lives, consuming more energy and producing more devices that have to be updated and upgraded in shorter periods of time, as technology progresses. The calculation of the overall footprint of the digital world is much larger, not because of the energy consumption when we are using devices, but because of their production. Devices like laptops, PCs, smartphones, monitors and tablets, as well as infrastructures like communication networks and data centres currently have a global footprint of 3.5 per cent. And this figure is expected to increase to 14 per cent by 2040. The overall emissions include the energy for material mining, as well as smartphone manufacturing energy. Another participant contributing to the carbon footprint are the telecommunications service providers who encourage smartphone users to upgrade their mobile devices every couple of years, speeding up the rate of obsolescence and leading to an increasing amount of waste.

Software and the high energy-consuming infrastructure needed to support, is a major contributor to global carbon footprints | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Software and the high energy-consuming infrastructure needed to support, is a major contributor to global carbon footprints Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Little by little we find the hidden spots of carbon emissions. Software, which is rendered invisible to our eyes in terms of omissions, has become the machine behind increasing energy consumption. Companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and millions of others need countless data centres around the world. The increase in the dominance of mobile operating systems, mostly Google’s Android and Apple’s IOS, combined with the millions of mobile applications, have ignited a race for a mobile communications age. The increasingly unsustainable growth in the emissions footprint is there for only one purpose: to serve and support the software universe. This means that although hardware does much of the heavy lifting work, it is software industry that is calling the shots. It is important to confront our perceptions with real data. It is only with this exercise that we can look at ourselves as also being part of the problem. Whilst we enjoy using all the digital technology apparatus around us, they do not come without a consequence.

  • Renewables such as hydroelectric solar, and wind power only account for a fraction of global energy production | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
    Renewables such as hydroelectric solar, and wind power only account for a fraction of global energy production Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann
  • Despite this, it is widely accepted that renewable energy is the only way to generate sustainable solutions that provide for the energy needs of the future | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
    Despite this, it is widely accepted that renewable energy is the only way to generate sustainable solutions that provide for the energy needs of the future Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

All in all, renewable energy production will be almost the only way to generate smart solutions that last longer. Simple because you keep using more energy. Up to 2020, around two-thirds (63.3 per cent) of our electricity came from fossil fuels. Of the remaining 36.7 per cent from low-carbon and lower emissions sources, renewables accounted for 26.3 per cent, and nuclear for 10.4 per cent. With Brazil, Canada, a few countries in Europe including France and Scandinavian countries, and a few more in Africa leading the way in low carbon energy production, most of the world has a lot of catch-up to do. To be fair, a lot of the countries producing energy with lower emissions rely heavily on hydroelectric plants as well as on nuclear. Solar, wind, and other renewable technologies are growing and should account for a large share of electricity production in the near future. And this is the part that every single country must look at from now on. If we don’t do that electric cars and our mobile devices will be contributing to a lot to the emissions. My hope is that digital technologies also help us to monitor and give us insights as to where we need to go. We will need certainly a lot of artificial intelligence and machine learning to be re-educated into the world where energy is the source of goodness but also come from sources that do not harm the environment.

Clean energy should ideally account for a much larger share of global requirements in the future, but there is still a lot of improvement required | Digital Legacies | Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Clean energy should ideally account for a much larger share of global requirements in the future, but there is still a lot of improvement required Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.

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