“Can everybody hear me? Can you see me well?”. How many times have we heard or said these two questions over the past 12 months? The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way we work and those who could, shifted from a nine-to-five office job to a remote one from their own homes.
However, the need to attend meetings has not diminished and the past year turned out to be really good for those streaming companies and their applications and platforms for online conferences and events.
Although very comfortable for us (let’s just admit it, most of us is wearing pyjamas during these calls), it was less advantageous for the environment. Indeed, a record drop in global carbon emissions was registered since March 2020. Nevertheless, significant threats to the environment remain.
A new study conducted by researchers from Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the first to analyse the water and land footprints associated with internet infrastructure in addition to carbon footprints.
The researchers estimated that just one hour of videoconferencing or streaming, for example, emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, requires 2-12 litres of water and demands a land area adding up to about the size of an iPad Mini.
But leaving your camera off during a web call can reduce these footprints by 96 per cent. Streaming content in standard definition rather than in high definition while using apps such as Netflix or Hulu also could bring an 86 per cent reduction.
“If you just focus on one type of footprint, you miss out on others that can provide a more holistic look at environmental impact,” said Roshanak ‘Roshi’ Nateghi, a Purdue professor of industrial engineering, whose work looks to uncover gaps and assumptions in energy research that have led to underestimating the effects of climate change.
The team estimated the carbon, water and land footprints associated with each gigabyte of data used in YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and 12 other platforms, as well as in online gaming and miscellaneous web surfing. As expected, the more video used in an application, the larger the footprints. Because data processing uses a lot of electricity and any production of electricity has carbon, water and land footprints, reducing data download reduces environmental damage.
“Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality,” said Kaveh Madani, who led and directed this study as a visiting fellow at the Yale MacMillan Center. “So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint.”
The internet’s carbon footprint had already been increasing before COVID-19 lockdowns, accounting for about 3.7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. With recent studies indicating that one-third of work in Europe’s leading economies could continue to be done remotely even after the pandemic subsides, there is a risk for greenhouse gas emissions coming from internet data to be much higher.
A number of countries have reported at least a 20 per cent increase in internet traffic since March. If the trend continues through the end of 2021, this increased internet use alone would require a forest, whose size would be twice the land area of Indiana, to sequester the emitted carbon, the study found. The additional water needed in the processing and transmission of data would also be enough to fill more than 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.