How much does a meeting on Zoom, an hour on Netflix, or a Google search cost the planet? The question has been asked by researchers from the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) on the occasion of the International Day Against Climate Change, which will be celebrated this Sunday. Aware of the impact that the unstoppable digitization of the economy and the life of the citizen has on the environment, they take stock and make some recommendations.

Xavier Vilajosana and Borja Martínez, from the aforementioned center, offer an illustrative example. Netflix recognizes that watching an hour of its content in Spain involves an emission of 55 grams of CO2, the same as making four bags of popcorn in a microwave, and is committed to trying to reduce this damage to the planet. “It is one of the examples that technology companies are beginning to worry about the digital carbon footprint, which still seems invisible to citizens but grows every time we make a video call, watch a series or download a document from our email ”, Both experts assure, who put another example.

According to some environmental impact studies, the 47,000 Google searches every second generate 500 kilograms of CO2 and the consumption of YouTube for a year, 10 million tons, is similar to that of the Scottish city of Glasgow.

For Vilajosana and Martínez, it is not necessary to look for a single culprit in this scenario. “The volume of data that is handled in today’s society is immense,” admit the researchers. “First it was digital commerce and, now, the boom of the platforms of streaming, and energy consumption through technology will continue to grow: digitization will cover all sectors of society, from education to public administration ”, they say.

UOC experts believe that, although citizens are increasingly hooked on screens, both for work and for their leisure activities, they are not aware of what is polluting their digital actions, as they are when they drive a car or generate garbage.

“It is necessary that the awareness that little by little we have been incorporating the more physical side of our environmental footprint is also transferred to a responsible consumption of platforms”, points out the collaborating professor of the Information and Communication Sciences Studies from the UOC Elena Neira.

Researchers from this university point out that the construction and maintenance of the huge data centers where all our digital transactions are processed – from the movies we see on Netflix, HBO or Disney to the social networks of Facebook, for example – are the reasons of this “very high” energy expenditure. “On a global scale, it is estimated that they consume the same electricity as a medium-sized country like Spain,” affirm Vilajosana and Martínez.

From the individual point of view, they reject that an exact calculation can be made, since these centers provide service to numerous applications simultaneously, “but the experts do estimate that the visualization of multimedia content, by generating a large amount of data, is what more energy impact has ”. And it depends on what type of action the user performs, since a Zoom video call compresses the information to the maximum to optimize the fluidity of the conversations, while a movie on HBO multiplies the volume of data so that it can be enjoyed in high definition. “In practice, see the content in streaming or downloading it is not very important, what matters is the type of content ”, they say.

The UOC researchers consider that pedagogy must be essential to be aware of the damage to the planet, although they also bet on shared responsibility with technology companies. Amazon, Google, Microsoft and IBM, major providers of public cloud, and the data center giants claim to have strategies and investments to combat their environmental impact. Amazon, for example, pledged this year to reach zero net carbon emissions by 2040 or earlier. And Microsoft told CincoDías in a recent interview that its data center –More than 156 worldwide– already use 100% renewable energy, and their goal is to be carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 to eliminate all the carbon that we have generated since the creation of the company in 1975. But, much remains to be done. do.

Actions to cut the impact

Options. The UOC researchers indicate that there are actions within applications that influence the fingerprint. For example, in a video call, do not activate the camera to reduce the impact by 61% or listen to music without playing the videos, “that is, use Spotify instead of YouTube if we are not interested in the image.” Vilajosana and Martínez also point out that TikTok is the one that generates the most contamination, according to reports that compare different social networks and platforms, based exclusively on watching videos and uploading them.

Consumption. “As our parents taught us with the lights in the house, turning off devices when they are used should be a common practice,” add the researchers, who highlight that a mobile phone consumes less than a large television, but the phone can be on 24 hours a day and the television does not.

Rationalize. Another recommendation, they say, is to “rationalize the consumption of online content”, but they understand that it is somewhat complicated, since a study estimates the increase in video on demand in Spain at 26% in 2020. What they qualify as “toxic” are practices like the so-called binge-watching, binge eating series. And they recommend disconnecting from the platforms that are visited for work, study or leisure when they are not used and download the content to the device if it is going to be consulted more than once.


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