According to the manifesto for digital sobriety proposed by Prof. Roberto Gingolani, the energy consumed to use all the digital equipment on the planet: servers, terminal networks, mobile devices, etc., is growing at a rate of 9% per year.
The data circulating in our home and business networks are formed by electrical currents traveling through cables, electromagnetic waves produced by antennas that are powered by electricity, beams of light that are powered by electricity, produced by lasers that are powered by electricity. Add to this the large servers that store and process data, as these require enormous electrical power to operate and to be cooled.
Much of the electrical energy is produced from fossil sources and therefore all digital technologies contribute to the rise in carbon dioxide levels, increasing the greenhouse effect. The transfer of 1 MegaByte produces the same amount of CO2 produced by a 60W light bulb turned on for about half an hour. Another important fact is the increase in digital traffic between 2013 and 2018, which contributed about 450 million tons of CO2 to the greenhouse effect. To better understand the scope of this whole process, it is necessary to define the main contributors to the environmental footprint of digital technologies:
– Data centers are growing to meet the demand for cloud storage and Big Data analytics, breaking through the Zettabyte (1 trillion Bytes) wall.
– Data traffic on major communications networks (which include the Internet and all telephone and telematics networks, computer networks, and the global Telex network) has increased dramatically. Video streaming and video game traffic has now reached about 200 Exabytes per month, or 200 billion Bytes.
– The IoT (Internet of Things) infrastructure that governs robots, artificial intelligence, and sensor networks to automate production lines has reached about 7.5 billion communication interfaces.
– Tablets, computers, smartphones, smart TVs, smartwatches, home automation devices, Bluetooth systems, etc. have surpassed 5 billion pieces produced.
Data traffic is increasing much faster than electricity consumption is decreasing, making the energy impact of renewable technologies increasingly heavy. The energy consumption associated with all digital technologies worldwide is approaching 4000 TWh (TeraWatt= 100 billion watts), equivalent to 3% of humanity’s global energy consumption. By 2025, it is expected to reach 5%.
Despite the fact that part of the energy used to power the large servers is renewable, today the emission of greenhouse gases due to digital technologies is worth about 4% of the total value, compared to the emission produced by transport vehicles such as motorcycles, cars and light vehicles which represents about 8%, while that of air traffic is 2%. In all of this, there is a risk that in the next few years the overall emission of greenhouse gases due to digital technologies will cancel out 20% of the global improvements painstakingly achieved through the sustainable policies implemented in international climate agreements.
Strengthened by this new awareness, we will have to start thinking deeply about the sobriety of the use of digital infrastructures. Above all, we must take full advantage of the process of ecological conversion, finally moving to the total use of renewable energy to avoid consuming even more resources and placing important debts on the perspectives of future generations.