While the pandemic led to a 76% upsurge in Internet usage, it also prompted a marked increase in consumer passion for the environment with 76% of Brits willing to take personal action to combat environmental and sustainability issues in 2021. The enormous impact of our ever increasing, often intangible digital activity on our physical planet has become undeniable. According to a study from email organisation app Cleanfox, “if the internet were a country, it would be the sixth biggest polluter in the world.” As new methods have emerged for measuring the contribution of internet usage to climate change and global warming, the onus is increasingly being placed on tech companies to address their carbon footprint.

In this week’s mailer, we’re taking a look at how the digital sustainability discourse is coming to light in three areas: searching, gaming and streaming – what the issues are and how businesses are responding to the challenge. 

Clean Searching

The Kolos data center is set to be the largest and most sustainable source of computing power in the world.

What are the issues?

Although the energy needed for a single internet search is relatively small, the global online population is now made up of approximately 4.66 billion, which means the cumulative impact of our online habits is inevitably adding up. To put this into perspective, Google alone receives approximately 2 trillion searches every single year, which equates to 400,000 tonnes of CO2.

What’s most important to understand here is the harmful impact that the surge in data centres powering online searches is having on the environment. Data centres are responsible for approximately 2% of greenhouse gas emissions: nearly the equivalent of the entire global airline industry. And perhaps most concerningly, this reliance on data centres is only set to grow as internet usage and penetration rates continue to accelerate rapidly across the globe.

How is the industry responding?

Some of the largest contributors to online traffic are tackling this problem head on, using a mix of renewable energy and carbon offsetting to reduce the carbon footprint of its operations. Google for example, recently announced its greenest pledge yet. The company is set to work towards running all of its data centres worldwide purely on carbon-free energy by 2030, which according to CEO Sundar Pichai would mean that “every email you send through Gmail, every question you ask Google Search, every YouTube video you watch, and every route you take using Google Maps, is supplied by clean energy every hour of every day.”At the same time, newer search engines are striving to set themselves apart by placing digital sustainability at the core of their ethos from the outset. Ecosia, for example, donates 80% of its profits to reforestation organisations and claims to plant a tree for every 45 searches performed. Meanwhile, OceanHero aims to use its search engine profits to remove plastic from the ocean, recovering one plastic

Green Gaming

The United Nations’ Playing for the Planet Alliance

What are the issues?

Gaming has skyrocketed during the pandemic, enticing people who used to play sporadically, or even those who had previously snubbed the category altogether. Unfortunately like most escapist pursuits, it comes with a cost. While gaming offers a relief from ever looming personal and global anxieties, it also threatens to bring at least one of them – the climate crisis – closer to reality. 

From an energy usage standpoint, the demands gaming places on electricity in the US alone is equivalent to 5 million cars annually. As the next generation of consoles are rolled out and become more advanced, the energy requirements to run these consoles will simultaneously increase. 

How is the industry responding?

Many gaming companies have taken positive and proactive steps in recognising and tackling their contribution to climate change. The biggest companies, including Sony, Microsoft and Ubisoft have agreed to the Playing For The Planet initiative with the UN Environment. In joining the alliance, members have made commitments ranging from reducing their emissions, planting millions of trees, lessening their use of plastic products as well as positively promoting the climate change agenda in their games. Meanwhile, a broader industry-wide shift towards digital downloads rather than hard-copy disks has reduced the requirement for plastics and harmful chemicals in the industry. While hard-copy disks and packaging do still exist, increasingly these are made using 100% recycled packaging.

We’re also seeing emerging content trends within video games with game designers increasingly incorporating sustainability themes into games as an indirect way of countering their carbon footprint through education. In Bee Simulator, players take on the role of a bee trying to survive while human’s destroy their natural habitat, and in The Sims 4: Eco Lifestyle expansion pack, players are tasked with living an eco-friendly lifestyle as much as possible.

Sustainable Streaming

Netflix’s Sustainability Strategy: Net Zero + Nature

What are the issues?

Unsurprisingly, video streaming is estimated to account for a large proportion of the internet’s contribution to climate change. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video account for roughly a third of video streaming’s carbon footprint, while YouTube and social media videos contribute another third. Amazingly, the YouTube video for the 2017 song ‘Despacito’ (with 5 billion views) has consumed the same amount of electricity as Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic combined in a single year.

The shift to home-working in the last 18 months is also likely to have exacerbated the issues. Video calling has a significantly larger carbon footprint than regular calling, to the extent that Zoom is estimated to now have a larger detrimental impact on the environment than Facebook.

Any business that relies heavily on video-streaming has to be powered from somewhere, and in most cases this involves gigantic data centres, requiring vast amounts of energy to run.

How is the industry responding?

One of the most important steps for the industry is to accurately assess its carbon footprint, a task which historically has proved difficult. A new tool developed by researchers at Bristol University however is helping with this. DIMPACT acts as an elaborate calculator for digital media companies to assess their carbon footprint and have recently partnered with Netflix to support them. Accurate and measurable data is integral in compelling businesses to address their carbon footprint and this tool is an important step in the process.

During the pandemic, some of the largest streaming companies reduced the quality of their video in order to manage the increased demand and internet traffic. While most have returned to the normal standard, YouTube have continued their policy that videos automatically load in reduced quality and users can then choose to view in HD. Experts predict that the ever increasing quality of video streaming will be a significant contributor to the sector’s carbon footprint, and industry-wide standards might be seen in the future in order to control this.

Concluding thoughts

As more products, activities and industries move online with the likes of cryptocurrencies, NFTs and so on, the public conversation around digital sustainability will only increase. Positively though, it does appear to be on the agenda of the biggest tech-businesses and steps are being taken to identify, assess and address the major contributors to digital carbon footprints. 

And while not remotely on the same scale, MTM is proud to have signed the Market Research Society (MRS) Net Zero Pledge – a manifesto for sustainability for the research sector that is committed to a net zero carbon emissions policy by 2026. 

About the authors

Marina Graham is an Associate Director at MTM who leads the team’s Cultural Insights & Trends work. She is constantly on the lookout for the next big thing and is obsessed with spotting new consumer trends and cultural movements before they become mainstream.

Archie Booth is a Senior Research Executive at MTM in our qualitative team. He works on a number of trend based studies and has particular interest in emerging developments within tech and sport.