Remote work is environmentally friendly

Remote Work Is Environmentally Friendly, but the Technology for It Also Has Carbon Costs

Read more from Author Rachel Maga here:

The significant shift to remote work due to the new coronavirus infection (COVID-19) has significantly reduced automotive and other carbon dioxide emissions, but at another cost. According to the latest research, internet connectivity and data infrastructure to enable working from home are causing a temporary increase in carbon costs. And that’s a good reason to turn off the camera.

Researchers at Purdue University, Yale University, and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) attempted to analyze the cost of carbon, land, and water in Internet infrastructure.

“To build a sustainable digital world, we need to carefully assess the environmental impact of the Internet and determine the actions that individuals or groups should take that have the greatest impact on its growth,” the introductory part of their treatise. It is written in.

He points out that using a single indicator is too short-circuited. Carbon emissions are a good indicator, but it’s also important to track the cost of electricity and water (needed to cool and operate your data center), as well as the theoretical “land costs” needed to make your product. If you feel this is a bit unfounded, it’s because of a series of estimates.

“To do this kind of calculation on a global scale requires a lot of assumptions and lacks much of the data we need,” said lead researcher Kaveh Madani of Yale University. Said in an email to TechCrunch. “Still, this is a good starting point, and we only do our best to do what we can with the data available,” Madani said of the lack of transparency in the industry, rather than the lack of statistical and scientific rigor. He pointed out that this hindered the accuracy of the study).

To give an example of research results, one hour of HD video streaming emits up to 440g of carbon dioxide. YouTube emissions can vary up to 1000g and 160g for Zoom and video conferencing, depending on video quality. Meanwhile, modern cars emit 8878g per gallon of gasoline (2347g per liter), the EPA says. If you’re having an hour of video meetings instead of commuting 20 miles (32 km) to work, it’s definitely green, one or two digits different.

madani fig

Image credit: Madani et al

However, no one has said that the shift to telecommuting and digital consumption are bad. “Of course, virtual meetings are better for the environment than going to the office by car, but there must be a better way,” Madani said.

The problem is that it’s not just about moving bits at a fraction of the environmental cost. Sure, the data was only sent through fiber, thanks in part to the huge data centers and communications infrastructure, and of course, the eternal cycle of wasted device replacement. However, the last one is not included in the estimates in this treatise.

Researchers warn that informed use is not possible without knowing the cost of what you use.
“Banking systems complain about the positive environmental impact of paperless, but no one tells us the benefits of turning off the camera or lowering the streaming resolution. That is, without the user’s consent, each platform It’s increasing our environmental impact, “Madani said in a news release at Purdue University. ..

The reduction in carbon emissions by turning off the camera on calls that don’t require face-to-face is small but not trivial. Similarly, by reducing the quality of streaming from HD to SD, you can save about 90% of the energy involved in communication (of course, the power consumption of TVs and speakers does not change).

That “doom crawling” habit of reading pessimistic information is already a problem, but each thumb flick indirectly discharges hot, eerie gas to some data center, air conditioning costs. It’s even more problematic, considering that it’s raising the price slightly. Social media in general doesn’t consume as much data as HD streaming, but the proliferation of video-centric networks such as TikTok means catching up quickly.

Aside from misleading articles about their study, Madani explains that the study doesn’t prescribe simple remedies such as turning off the camera. Of course it should be possible, but we should see systematic changes, not individuals, he said. Consider the potential of hundreds of millions of people turning off their cameras and reducing streaming quality from 4K to 720p. Only a few.

On the other hand, if the costs of these services become clear (as Madani et al. Have begun to work on), they will put pressure on the target companies to change the infrastructure side, and by improving the algorithm, 5000 It will save more energy than everyone makes a conscious decision to accept the faint discomfort.

“Consumers have the right to know more about what’s happening now. They don’t know what happens when they press the Enter button on their computer. It’s possible for strangers to change their behavior. I can’t expect it, “says Madani. “Policymakers should stand up to raise issues in this area, consider regulations, force improved transparency, impose pollution taxes, and create incentive mechanisms. Another unsustainable and controllable future. If you don’t want to see the impossible sector. ”

The shift to digital has created incredible efficiency and reduced or eliminated a lot of waste, but in the process created new problems. That’s what progress is. I just hope that the new problem is better than the old one.

This study has been published in the academic journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.


Rachel Maga
Rachel Maga is a technology journalist currently working at Globe Live Media agency. She has been in the Technology Journalism field for over 5 years now. Her life's biggest milestone is the inside tour of Tesla Industries, which was gifted to her by the legend Elon Musk himself.