On the whole, people tend to assume that technology represents an improvement to the world. Innovations can make life easier, they can save money for governments and people alike, they can connect people from all over the world, and they can - crucially - be used to combat the biggest issues facing us as a species. Technology has the potential to solve crises on a grand scale, and we can (almost) unanimously agree that the avoidance of environmental catastrophe is a big one.
It would also be understandable to assume that digital technology, on the whole, uses less energy than the industrial or analogue processes it is replacing. In many cases, this is true - companies can reduce their carbon footprints by going paperless, and electric cars are less environmentally damaging than their gas-guzzling predecessors. This being said, there are a number of elements of modern technology that have a detrimental environmental impact way above what you might expect. We took a look at a handful:
Despite being widely touted as the currency of the future, Bitcoin is backwards in terms of energy consumption. Put very simply, the mining of bitcoins requires a large number of computers around the world solving the same mathematical puzzle. Those that solve the puzzles are rewarded with bitcoins, before a new puzzle is presented. As more people become aware of and get interested in bitcoin, the number of miners increases, and thus the scale of the computing power working to mine the currency increases. This phenomenon is growing exponentially, and bitcoin is already at the point at which it appears disastrous environmentally.
A single bitcoin transaction now uses the same amount of energy as powering an American home for a week. And this is a conservative estimate - as Bitcoin rises in value (which is has fairly consistently done overall) the amount of juice it consumes will continue to rise. Companies are increasingly focusing on ASIC miners, which are comparatively energy-efficient, but more needs to be done to ensure that bitcoin doesn't become too much of an environmental burden.
One coder looking to fix the problem is Bram Cohen, the man behind BitTorrent. According to TechCrunch, his new company, Chia Network, is launching a cryptocurrency 'based on proofs of time and storage rather than bitcoin's electricity-burning proofs of work.' Cohen aims to create a 'better bitcoin', one with the express purpose of slashing energy consumption without sacrificing security.
Undeniably, smartphones have changed the lives of those lucky enough to have them in innumerable ways. Research from 2016 found that the average smartphone user touches their device a whopping 2,617 times every day, and many find it difficult to imagine a time before them. Unfortunately, though, they have had a similarly significant impact on the environment. The inner workings of a smartphone include metals like aluminium, gold, and cobalt, the mining for which has had detrimental impacts to communities in developing countries on top of the environmental impact of mining more generally. Each smartphone uses a relatively insignificant amount of material, but with 2.32 billion users worldwide, the impact is huge.
Modular smartphones have entered the conversation throughout the technologies history; models that can be incrementally upgraded with improved modules to limit the need for throwing older units on the scrapheap. They have failed to take off for a number of reasons, but their focus on sustainability should be commended. The Fairphone is a good example; ethically sourced and built to last, the smartphone goes against the grain of profit through regular upgrades, instead providing modular refurbishments. These innovations may well be the future of the devices, though there is very little evidence that this will be the case if sales figures are anything to go by.
By far the most energy-sapping technology of the digital age is data storage. The billions of gigabytes of information created are stored in data centers across the world, and the amount of energy consumed by them is astronomical. In the comparatively short span of their existence, data centres have grown to consume roughly 3% of the global electricity supply. This accounts for 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions and, according to the Independent, the energy consumed will treble in the next decade.
Even as it stands, data centers consume significantly more energy than the whole of the UK - 416.2 terawatt hours of electricity in 2015 to the UK's 300 terawatt hours. Even if data centers shifted to using exclusively renewable electricity, the sheer amount of electricity used would put too much pressure on the world's power systems to be sustainable. Data storage is an integral part of the internet and they will continue to grow as the internet of things develops and as more of the world becomes online. How we cope with the environmental impact of this will be paramount.
Email is such an ingrained part of life for both individuals and businesses that we rarely consider its environmental impact. But despite the relatively small amount of information sent in the average email, when the sheer volume of communications are considered, the energy used to facilitate them all is significant. In Mike Berners-Lee's 2010 book 'How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything,' a standard email has a footprint of 4 g carbon dioxide emissions. For the average user, incoming mail alone equates to 300 pounds of emissions over the course of a year, the equivalent of 'driving 200 miles in an average car.'
The solution to this problem is far from simple; email is simply too ingrained for a speedy drop-off to be possible. However, if companies were to consider their policy on mass-emailing potential customers, and started viewing it in a similar way to excessive paper usage, they could lower their individual carbon footprints.