INVISIBLE DUST

Photography by Laura Coulson
Styling by Lyson Marchessault
Text by Malgorzata Nieziolek

If it were a country, the Internet would be third on the list of the most energy-guzzling states on the planet, after China and the United States. The Web conjures thoughts of the virtual, infinite, and non-material, and yet digital pollution is real and threatens the planet. Here is a look at the current state of affairs:

10 grams of CO2. That is the carbon footprint of an e-mail. Seem negligible? It isn’t if one consi- ders the number of messages sent every minute across the planet – 200 million! Before arriving at its recipient, an e-mail first flows along copper cables to join the nearest servers, before moving on to a regional data center. From there, it often crosses the Atlantic, to reach the data center belonging to the mes- sage center’s web host (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail). After an analysis, the message turns back in the opposite direction, to land in the recipient’s mail box, often just a few streets or offices from the original sender. Thus, twenty e-mails sent per day by one person over a year, amounts to the same CO2 emissions as driving a car for 1000 km.

On top of that, one must add: the use of social networks, data storage, online activity by businesses, the production of new smartphones and computers, and energy consumption by Internet boxes. In all, “The digital industry mono- polizes over 16% of global electrical activity. Today it consumes as much as worldwide civil aviation,” reported Inès Leonarduzzi, founder of Digital for the Planet, an NGO that fights to reduce digital pollu- tion across the world. Nevertheless, digital pollution remains little known. “In May 2018, 77% of the French people did not know what it was. Once the concept was explained to them, 91% thought it was the next major global issue of concern, and 80% affirmed their commitment to becoming more loyal to services and brands who are respectful and engaged on the subject,” added Inès Leonarduzzi.

The individual acts of Internet users are the source of much of this pollution, but solu- tions have already been developed over the years to limit it. Ecosia is an environmentally responsible search engine. An alternative to Google, which uses the revenue generated by searches to plant trees. “Like Google, Ecosia posts search results with ads. If you click on them, it generates revenue. Then we use that money to plant trees,” explains Christian Kroll, Ecosia’s founder. Since 2009 the start-up has planted over 43 million trees in roughly 20 countries.

Another solution on the individual scale is Cleanfox, an application allowing Internet users to clean up their mail boxes to reduce their carbon footprint. On the one hand, it deletes old, unwanted e-mails, and on the other, it makes it very easy to unsubscribe from unnecessary newsletters.

Indeed, the second largest problem associated with the Web, is the storage of data. What appears to be invisible, is in fact stored in a phys- ical location. The contents of our Cloud, our e-mails, the data bases of businesses and all manner of other information that is “dematerialized,” are in fact stored in data centers. These information banks are extremely high energy consumers, requiring 24 -hour a day air con- ditioning. “They are immense spaces which measure several times the size of a soccer field, and for which there are thousands and thou- sands of servers,” explains Edouard Nattée, CEO of Foxintelligence on French radio station, RFI. Data centers have a daily average of energy consumption equivalent to a European city of 30,000 residents.

The largest of these centers are located in the United States. However, many are supplied by coal-powered stations, which are detrimental to the environment. Digital consump- tion represents over 2% of global CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, some changes in habits have begun to take place. Data storage centers mostly belong to large companies like Google, Facebook or Twitter, which can choose their energy sources. “Today, for instance, one third of the energy that supplies Facebook comes from renewable sources. Google is already at the halfway mark, and all businesses have pledged to aim for 100% clean energy,” said Edouard Nattée.

Thus, in September 2018, Google signed a 10-year contract with three Finnish wind power stations to supply the energy for operating its data center in Hamina. In November of the same year, the digital giant invested 600 million euros toward the building of a new data center in Denmark. “It will be 100% supplied by clean energy and will be one of the most sustain- able, energy efficient data centers in Denmark, making full use of new technology to ensure that every watt of electricity counts,” said Joe Kava, director of Google’s global data center.

However, certain leaders in the digital realm remain stalled at the rear of the pack. According to the Clicking Clean report, published by Greenpeace in 2017, Netflix is lagging behind when it comes to environmentalism, with its continued use of high polluting energy sources. In 2017, only 17% of energy consumed by the streaming giant came from renewable sources. Compared to YouTube, for example, which used 56% renewable energy during the same period, Netflix’s record is far from satisfactory. That said, “renewable,” is not always synonymous with “clean.”

“Similarly to digital technology, renew- able energy requires rare metals, as in the case of wind turbine wings. On a large scale, renewable energy could worsen the earth and rare metal crisis,” explains Inès Leonarduzzi. Accord- ing to her, the solution would be to prioritize pre-used stocks, “our trash.” “We need to learn how to create value from what has already been used. It’s pretty ridiculous that I’m not afraid of buying a used car, but refuse to buy a second-hand smart phone for fear it will break too quickly,” commented the founder of Digital for the Planet.

Other than the reduction of non-renewable energy, other options are being explored with the goal of limiting digital pollution, particularly in France. Paul Benoît, a computer engineer, found two solutions for two problems: on the one hand, the heat generated by the data centers, and the other, the difficulty many French people expe- rience in heating their homes. His company, Qarnot Computing, came up with the idea of using the heat generated by data center servers to heat residential buildings at no cost to the consumer. Computers which are used by businesses located elsewhere are enclosed within radiators in individ- ual homes or offices. These same businesses pay for their use, which allows Qarnot Computing to use the electricity twice – a world first. These are solutions which deserve closer investigation, while taking into account digital technology’s constant devel- opment. Between the years 2017 and 2018 alone, the number of Internet users rose 7% worldwide, bypassing the 4 billion benchmark.

According to Inès Leonarduzzi, there is still much work to be done, but the possibilities are endless. “Those who are anti-digital technology think they can stop the train in its tracks, and make it reverse directions, but it has already gained too much speed. The only thing we can do at this point is recalibrate the trajectory so that progress reaches the largest number of people. For that, it’s necessary to understand that digital technology is recent, and we are at its prehistoric stage on the global scale. Now is the time to move onto the Enlightenment period, by making our Internet use more intelligent and more sustainable.”

Black Friday: a black day for the planet

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Sales… The Web has contributed to the development of new commercial “traditions,” pushing users ever more towards greater consumption. And it is not without consequences on the environment. Black Friday, the great communion for shopping at advantageous prices, results in an increase in online purchases. In 2017, during Black Friday, e-commerce’s global sales figure jumped 69% according to the Federation of e-commerce and distance selling. But more online sales also means more shipping and returns.

In the United Kingdom alone, 82,000 diesel vans and trucks were mobilized for order shipment in 2017. Returns made during this period of impulsive shopping also produces pollution. In addition, a large number of returned prod- ucts are thrown in the trash (one third according to a German study). The reason lies in the fact that it is easier to get rid of an object, rather than verify whether it functions properly before putting it back on the circuit. To fight against pollu- tion and over-consumption Greenpeace has called for a boycott of Black Friday, and certain brands have taken special steps. Patagonia, for example, has decided to donate the entirety of their Black Friday sales profits to environmental initiatives.

STATISTICS: On average, a single household’s computer equipment consumption is 128kg of CO2 per year, or the equivalent of 155,000 low-consuming light bulbs switched on for an hour. 8000 billions of billions of data were stocked in 2017 in data centers.