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How tech firms could cut their carbon footprint

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Digital technology companies could reduce the carbon footprint of services like YouTube by making changes to how they are designed, experts say. The researchers suggest that making sustainability the primary focus of projects involving the use of technologies has more potential to offer in terms of carbon savings than companies currently explore.

“Digital services are an everyday part of our lives,” said lead researcher Chris Preist, Professor at University of Bristol in Britain. “But they require significant energy to deliver globally — not only in data centres, but also in networks, mobile networks and end devices – and so overall can have a big carbon footprint,” Preist said.

For the study, the researchers looked at how much electric energy was used to provide YouTube videos to people globally in 2016, to enable them to estimate the service’s carbon footprint in that year. Their analysis showed it was around 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

These carbon emissions result from servers and networking devices streaming about one billion hours of YouTube video to user devices each day.

They also assessed the reductions that could be gained by eliminating one example of ‘digital waste’ – namely avoiding sending images to users who are only using YouTube to listen to audio. They estimated such a design intervention could reduce the footprint by between 100-500 kilotonnes (Kt) CO2e annually – the carbon footprint of roughly 30,000 UK homes.

The study, presented at CHI 2019 in held in Glasgow, UK, used a modelling toolkit developed by the researchers to assess the carbon footprint of such services, and estimate the changes that alternate design decisions can have.

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