Submitted by: Sam Upton April 15, 2021
Your online communications may be quick and convenient, but they are part of a global infrastructure that consumes vast amounts of energy and resources.
On March 27, Pizza Hut asked its customers to do an unusual thing. For one hour, between 8.30pm and 9.30pm, customers in the UAE and Oman were asked to turn off their wi-fi. In return, the pizza company would enter those that did into a draw to win free pizza.
Quite why an international pizza brand would ask their customers to go offline – and why those customers would agree – is difficult to understand. But the initiative makes more sense when you consider that 8.30-9.30pm on March 27 was Earth Hour, an annual time when people around the world are asked by the WWF to turn off their lights to show support for environmental issues and a commitment to the planet.
“Since it’s kind of hard to eat pizza in the dark,” Beverley D’Cruz, Chief Brand Officer for Pizza Hut in the Middle East and Africa, told AdWeek, “this year we wanted to encourage people to support a great cause in a different, but just as impactful, way.”
While the Pizza Hut initiative was designed to raise awareness of Earth Hour amongst its customers – who were unable to turn out the lights of the restaurant they were dining in – it also neatly highlights another significant drain on the planet’s resources and energy supplies: digital networks and devices.
The Digital Problem
There’s a common misconception surrounding digital media that, because there’s no physical media involved, it’s somehow environmentally friendly. That couldn’t be further from the truth. From the tiniest microprocessor in a smartphone to the giant server farms storing data, there’s an environmental cost at every stage of the creation and distribution of digital communication.
While digital communications may appeal at boardroom level for low cost, and at consumer level for convenience, when it comes to their impact on the environment, there’s a completely hidden digital infrastructure lifecycle that contributes almost three times the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) to the atmosphere than the paper industry.
It’s estimated that the information and communications technology (ICT) is responsible for between 2.5-3% of global GHG emissions.1 However, the pulp, paper and print industry accounts for just 1% of GHG emissions.2 The ICT industry and its infrastructure also rely heavily on fossil fuels – by far the leading industry in terms of global GHG emissions – and while it seems harmless to send an email, the world’s emails generate close to 300 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of over 63 million cars.3
Of course, as the fastest growing sector in the world, digital technology is increasing at a rapid rate. This means that its energy consumption is also increasing, by an estimated 9% every year.4 Working through the numbers, this puts the share of global GHG emissions for the digital technology at 8% by 2025 – the current share of car emissions.4,5
The Low-Carbon Hero
These are alarming figures, and ones that rarely turn up on company websites or digital communications. But it’s vital that companies and their consumers are aware of the environmental facts when they consider their media choices – especially when it comes to the paper industry.
In contrast to the ICT industry, the pulp, paper and print industry is one of the lowest contributing industrial sectors to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at only 1% of emissions worldwide.6 The industry is always striving to be as sustainable as possible, it invested €5.1 billion into achieving a low-carbon bioeconomy in 2018, which is more than twice the average of all other manufacturing sectors.7
Going further, the paper industry is the biggest single industrial user and producer of renewable energy in the EU, with 60% of its total fuel consumption being biomass-based.8 It also consumes very little water: more than 90% of the water used in the European paper industry is returned to the source, in good condition, after being recycled several times within the paper and board mill.9 And, in an often quoted but powerful statement, between 2005 and 2015, European forests grew by an area the size of Switzerland.8
So the next time you’re told that using paper has an impact on the environment, take a long, hard look at your smartphone. It may be doing more damage than you think.
1 Belkhir & Elmeligi, Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018.
2ASN and Ecofys, 2015.
3US Environmental Protection Agency, 2018.
4The Shift Project. 2019.
5Andrae and Edler. 2015.
6ASN and Ecofys, 2015.