Creative Carbon Scotland’s Guide to your Digital Carbon Footprint
Understanding Digital Emissions. Looking glass hovering over computer screen against a green circle background
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as digital technologies develop and become more integrated into our working lives at large, we increasingly hear from cultural organisations who are interested in understanding the carbon footprint of their digital and online activities.
While the term ‘digital footprint’ is generally defined as the traces of data left behind from an individual or an organisation’s use of the internet, here we focus on the sustainability aspects of the broader lifecycle of how we use digital technology in the cultural sector. There is a wealth of information out there from sources more specialist to the digital world, so we’ve tried to highlight these where relevant.
This resource covers the following themes:
- General resources
- Physical devices
- Internet use
- Good housekeeping
- Creative uses of digital
- Julie’s Bicycle provides a useful overview of how the carbon emissions from our digital footprint and culture intersect, exploring impacts and case studies of good practice.
- The Ericsson Guide provides a really thorough exploration of the different aspects of the ICT footprint, including comparison with aviation and setting it in the context of the social, economic and cultural benefit of digital connectivity.
Physical devices such as laptops, tablets, mobile phones and monitors are the products of global supply chains. When purchasing devices, we should consider the social and economic impact of producing these resources. These can include: the sourcing of minerals that make up their electronic components, the human rights and health of the workers employed in extracting and working with these materials, and the often polluting implications for the natural environment and land use in places where devices are made.
To get the most out of a device’s production costs, it’s important to think about its repairability and what you’re going to do with it at the end of its useful life. Consider buying second-hand, refurbished devices and find out about local social enterprises that might be able to provide these or use them when you’re finished, such as Edinburgh Remakery and Remade in Govanhill. This can also save money.
- You can find out more to inform your purchasing decisions of new devices from Ethical Consumer in their technology guide.
- Community Resources Network Scotland have a map tool where you can find charities, social enterprises and businesses who can repair and reuse items of all sorts, including IT equipment.
- Look out for the Zero Waste Scotland Revolve accreditation for extra assurance about how second-hand initiatives operate. They also have a map tool where you can locate accredited providers.
The production of your physical devices is one source of emissions. Image: Alexandre Debiève via Unsplash
Since we use the internet so much as part of daily life, it can be hard to think of it as having any physical impact. However, each unit of data we deal with, whether it’s sending an email, streaming a video, or saving a file, has energy use associated with it. The more data transfer it involves, the higher the associated energy use is. This happens in two ways. First, in the electricity your device uses to store, process and display what’s happening at the user end. Second, internet and digital service providers store our data in data centres that require electricity and cooling on an intensive level to keep the machines working well.
Rather like the carbon intensity of your energy provider, it’s harder to track and reduce from the consumer end. The most useful way to take action on this front is by researching the lowest carbon options. This requires ongoing research to keep informed on developments – we’ve found the resources below a good place to start.
Data centres vs. the cloud
Globally, data centres account for about 1% of total electricity demand worldwide. A data centre is a server (or collection of servers) which you own, and which store your data. These are typically based in your office or a central location. ‘The cloud’ is when you store your data on someone else’s hardware and infrastructure. Much of the software we use is now ‘cloud-based’, meaning the server is accessed over the internet, with the data centre(s) supporting a cloud server based somewhere else in the world. Microsoft Office 365, Dropbox and Google Drive are all cloud-based tools. Generally, cloud servers are less carbon intensive than the traditional office data centre approach, due to economies of scale and efficiency, but they must be powered by renewable energy for this to be the case.
Video conferencing is now the main way of ‘meeting’ professionally. Although video conferencing services use the internet (and therefore have the same energy and emissions implications as outlined above), it is often still much less resource-intensive than if a meeting were to happen in person – which would require heating, lighting, travel, etc. This academic study from 2014 found that videoconferencing currently takes at most 7% of the energy/carbon of an in-person meeting.
Data centres make up around 1% of all energy worldwide. Image: Taylor Vick via Unsplash
Here are some general pointers for efficient use of the internet and data storage that we can all implement in our day-to-day work:
- Choose energy-efficient devices that don’t use more power than they need to, and work with their settings to make sure your device isn’t working when it’s not necessary, e.g. setting your screen to switch off and your device to sleep after a short period of inactivity.
- Delete emails you don’t need and unsubscribe from mailing lists if you don’t read the emails. The emissions from sending and receiving emails do not ‘belong’ to the sender or receiver, but they do exist, so it’s worth doing what you can to reduce them.
- Be efficient about your digital storage – make sure you don’t store duplicates of the same file and compress files so they take up less space. Perhaps make a recurring calendar appointment to delete old versions of files you no longer need, especially photos and videos which use more energy to store.
- Consider using physical external hard drives for storing old folders and files that you don’t need to access regularly. Unlike cloud storage, this doesn’t use any energy when you’re not accessing it.
- Close browser tabs and programmes you aren’t using – this minimises the power your device needs to run. Here’s something a science journalist tried to find out about the impact of unneeded browser tabs.
- Find out more – use the resources mentioned here and find others to make sure you stay informed as things develop, and ask questions about the environmental impact of digital changes you make.
Storing infrequently accessed files on an external hard drive can reduce energy used in storing data. Image: Andrew Neel via Unsplash
Creative uses of digital
In 2020, the hashtag #theshowmustgoonline trended as artists everywhere got to grips with ways of presenting their work in a world where live arts in-person wasn’t a possibility due to COVID-19 restrictions. Some elements of how artists and organisations responded to these conditions will be temporary, but some will be integrated into future practice or will grow into their own new forms. Here’s a brief snapshot of some of the huge range of digital creative work that’s taken place in Scotland over the past year:
- National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes For Survival was a series of one-person short performances specifically created for an online audience, presented as videos that could be watched by anyone at any time.
- Lyceum Christmas Tales released an advent calendar of stories performed from the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh engaging the audience through specific timings of the releases. They are now available to watch by anyone at any time.
- Civic Digits Theatre Company’s Big Data Show uses the digital form to reflect on the social, cultural and political aspects of the digi-verse itself. Civic Digits are developing this work and will continue to present work that has elements of digital and live performance, intentionally blurring the distinction between the two.
- Paragon Ensemble delivered the development of Whoosh! online, engaging their performers and creators in online workshops. While they aspire to perform the work live, the company has ambitions to maintain some element of digital workshop delivery, which they found made workshops more accessible for some of their performers.
- Traverse Theatre-produced show ‘The Journey’ uses the viewer’s device to create an intimate and immersive theatrical experience that goes beyond putting a live performance online.
- Lyra Theatre provided Cultural Survival Packs for their young participants in Craigmillar and Niddrie with creative activities physically posted out in addition to programmes of workshops and performances held on Zoom and workshops presented as short videos to be accessed at any time.
- Alchemy Film and Arts put their 2020 festival of film and the moving imagine online, and for 2021 are maintaining an element of ‘on demand’ content allowing audiences from further afield to attend.
- Here at Creative Carbon Scotland, we’ve found much of our work transferred well to a digital form, in some cases allowing people to join us for events who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. We were particularly happy with our Cultural Adaptations conference. Our online Green Arts meet-ups and Green Tease events have continued to connect cultural organisations and artists in their environmental work.
Lots of creative work has taken place online. Image: Chris Montgomery on Unsplash
We still have a lot to unpick and learn about the environmental impact of creative digital activity, including the impact of livestreaming performances and making more work available online. At Creative Carbon Scotland, we’re actively participating in projects focused on this subject, and will share more information about this when we have it.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the essential nature of digital culture and digital technologies in how we work. As we return to live in-person events (or a hybrid of digital and physical activity), understanding your digital carbon footprint is likely to be an ongoing part of your action on climate change.
We hope this has been a useful introduction to the environmental impact of the wider uses of digital devices and services. If you’d like to share anything with the wider Green Arts community about your own experience, or if you have an idea for how we can improve this resource, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
This guidance is part of Creative Carbon Scotland’s resources for our Green Arts community: a network of cultural organisations in Scotland committed to reducing their environmental impact. Find out more and join for free on our Green Arts Initiative page.