Think of the environment – don’t print this article. You will have all seen the little messages at the foot of e-mails urging you to ‘save the planet’ through reducing unnecessary printing. The wonders of technology now mean we can avoid this energy cost and the materials that produced the paper.
Hang on a minute though, are paper copies necessarily a bad thing and how do we know that technology is ‘greener’? What do we need to know to find out?
The speed of technology advances today is truly revolutionary. My childhood dreams (driven by Blake’s 7 and Star Trek) of being able to videophone my mates are here and so are a host of other amazing technologies. I can read the news, while watching video content and commenting on the article simultaneously.
This change means that business and consumers have unprecedented access to information and new ways of working. But the environmental and social impacts of this advancing technology are poorly understood and alternatives to traditional media such as paper are often labelled as “green” on a basis of massive assumptions and scant data.
The ICT sector has a proven track record of delivering high levels of energy efficiency gains year on year. Whilst figures are difficult to obtain for this, Taylor and Koomey (2008) estimated that between 2000 and 2006 overall Internet electricity energy use (to power the servers, data centres and network – not including home or office devices accessing the internet) roughly doubled, whilst internet data trafffic grew by a factor of 20, meaning energy intensity in kW per GB was reduced by an order of magnitude.
However, consumers and business are demanding richer content and new channels to access info and engage more directly in discussion. The net output of this is that device obsolescence is huge, net energy demand to power this interactive, multichannel world is going up as are the emissions associated with it.
According to the recent ‘Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity’ report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the projected growth in global data generated per year is 40%. So whilst on the surface it seems common sense that moving to digital means lower impacts, it is not as simple as that.
One group where understanding this shift may mean the difference of being in or out of business is the media and publishing sector. Moving television or print media production to a predominantly digital platform means reinventing significant aspects of their business models.
I help convene a network of organisations including Reed Elsevier, The Guardian, The Professional Publishers Association, BBC R&D, Sanoma Group, The Energy Savings Trust and Pearson’s Penguin Group in a ‘Digital Sustainability Group’, which is seeking to explore the sustainability impacts of this transition.
The group recognises that digital sustainability impacts are broad from the brainprint (the influence of the media on the user) to energy use. Initially, it is focusing on carbon emissions with the objective of creating guidance that can be used to guide activities within their respective organisations to reduce emissions at key stages of the process: content creation, storage, distribution and use.
Take one stage of this process – data storage – there is a lot of guidance out there, e.g. from the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres to the Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) metric to support the measurement of data centre efficiency.
Whilst these are very useful and can enable comparisons on a like for like basis between data centres and companies it is not the whole story. What is missing is the context and the translation – what does this mean for business planners and others who can influence the content that has to flow through the data centres?
Sure, you can make data centres work more efficiently, but what about the overall increase in emissions as the volume of data throughput rises dramatically? There has been a series of announcements about locating data centres in cold places to take advantage of natural cooling, however the best example I have seen of data centre efficiency comes from Tieto, the Finnish ICT company which utilises the heat generated by their data centre in Helsinki and which would otherwise be wasted in a district heating network.
The irony lost in the paper/digital debate is that paper mills have been using district heating technology for decades. Looking at energy issues in isolation is not the best approach. Taking a systems approach is often the best way to measure efficiencies and sustainability impacts.
The project is also pulling together information and data that is available and trying to make some sense of it. What is clear is that there is not much high quality data that covers the whole process of creating and delivering digital media.
Often the data has a specific narrow scope, significant omissions and is based on very broad assumptions. Change some of the boundaries or assumptions and you can get a significantly different result. This hasn’t stopped some research designed for very limited context and lacking in rigour becoming known as fact.
One example of this relates to e-readers where data from an individual testing some software over a weekend with reasoned guesswork ended up being used as the basis for wider research into impacts of e-readers in general.
The results were widely used by the media and have been influential in creating the view that e-readers produce much less impact than printed books. Research in this area suggested that you have to read 36 e-books per year to make an e-reader the environmentally preferable option.
Average book readership in the UK according to a leading publisher is about 6 books per year. I am not suggesting printed books are necessarily better than e-books, what I am suggesting is that care needs to be taken in using the limited research currently available and that more high quality research is badly needed.
Another factor that surprised me, which I have now seen in two independently produced carbon footprints, is that the most significant emissions lifecycle stage with e-devices is the production of the device and especially the screens. I had anticipated that the use stage would produce more emissions but apparently not. This generates renewed questions about device obsolescence and our obsession with the latest technology.
Whilst the digital sustainability group will not be producing all the answers, it is going some way to help business decision makers ask the right questions and make more considered decisions on the transition to digital media. What is clear is that significantly more quality research is needed, together with an increase in transparency and collaboration from the digital device manufacturers and the inherently complex digital content supply chain. Business decisions need to be better informed and driven less by current trends and assumptions.
The reality is that digital and print are complimentary and not an either or. Use characteristics are also important. If you only want to dip in and read something for a short time, then maybe the internet via a tablet may be the option of least emissions, however if you want to get stuck into reading something for a longer period then maybe the magazine or book is the option of least emissions. In other words, device and use characteristics are looking like they are more important than the channel the media is delivered through.
And so should you print this article? Probably not. Local printing is much less efficient than bulk printing, but take care with assuming everything electronic has less emissions and a lower environmental impact.