13th May 2019

Digital waste could be reduced, experts claim

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The carbon footprint of services including YouTube could be reduced by digital technology companies, according to experts.

Analysis conducted by human-computer interaction researchers from the University of Bristol looked at how much electric energy was used to provide YouTube videos to people globally in 2016.

Data showed it was around 10Mt CO2e (Million Metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent) – the equivalent to that of a city the size of Glasgow.

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

The experts also analysed 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 believe such an intervention could reduce the footprint by between 100-500Kt CO2e annually – the carbon footprint of roughly 30,000 UK homes.

The study 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.

The toolkit enables a researcher to build a model of a digital service which combines data detailing user behaviour patterns with information about how the service uses the internet.  Data is then accessed on the power consumption of equipment within the internet to allow a statistical model of the overall energy consumption of a service, to estimate its carbon footprint.

Chris Preist, professor of sustainability and computer systems, from Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, said:  “Digital services are an everyday part of our lives 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.”

Professor Preist and his team suggest that Sustainable Interaction Design (SID) has more potential to offer in terms of carbon savings than companies currently explore.

The researchers also showed that current standards used by companies to report carbon emissions do not adequately account for the whole footprint of such digital services.

Professor Preist added: “People are aware of the significant amount of energy use of data centres and corporations are increasingly aware of the need to change their practices in light of the challenges that climate change present to humanity and the global ecosystem.

“But for a streaming service such as YouTube, most of the energy is used in the network, particularly the mobile network.

“Given the overall size of the carbon footprint of such services, it is important that companies assess and report them. By doing so, they can identify the carbon savings that can be made by alternative design decisions, and hopefully find ways to reduce their overall footprint.”

Dr Dan Schien, the lead designer of the toolkit, explained ‘We are currently working in partnership with the BBC to understand how the footprint of BBC distribution will change over the next decade as more and more people use the internet in place of traditional broadcast TV.”

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