Picture shows a green leaf in a glass of water – and a modern laptop next to it.
Best Practice

Green IT: Sustainably Digital

Combating the climate crisis probably is the greatest challenge of our time. Without drastic reductions in emissions, comprehensive protection of natural resources and sustainable green management, humanity is basically doomed. This insight is several decades old. What is comparatively new, however, is the realization that the digital media industry can – and must – play a leading role in environmental and climate protection.

Green IT is about designing, producing, using and decommissioning or recycling information technology in the most environmentally friendly way possible. It is important to note that the concept doesn’t only address ecological aspects, but also economic, social, and political ones. Thought through to the end, Green IT will champion:

  • sustainable design, durable hardware, the end of planned obsolescence
  • the reduction of material consumption, energy consumption and emissions in the manufacture of hardware, as well as the reduction of pollutants in devices
  • healthy working conditions and fair wages in production (Fair IT)
  • the reduction of energy consumption and emissions in the operation of hardware
  • comprehensive recycling and environmentally friendly disposal of hardware
  • resource-saving software development
  • use of IT to regulate other sources of emissions (e.g., smart heating; collaborative work on the web instead of air travel)

Problems and challenges everywhere

The relevance of the topic can hardly be overestimated, as all employees of a modern media company use electronic devices and digital services in some form or another, and the organization is thus indirectly responsible for a large number of issues.

These include massive environmental destruction and systematic human rights violations in the mining of raw materials in developing countries (conflict minerals), contaminated groundwater near chip factories, huge electronic waste dumps on the periphery, and suicides at tech companies and suppliers in countries with inadequate labor standards.

Once the hardware is up and running, there is the problem of polluting emissions, which tend to increase dramatically with the size of the devices (desktop PCs + large monitors, server farms etc.) and the general hunger for data (AV content, cloud computing, AI training). Already, the internet alone is responsible for nearly 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions – with 80% of internet power consumption coming from streaming music and movies. The following table (derived from this post) shows how multimediazation is increasing emissions:

Digital ServiceCO2 Emissions
Search query (e.g. with Google)0,2 g
Email without attachment4 g
Email with photo attachment30 g
10 min of audio streaming (high quality)32,3 g
10 min of video streaming (high quality)533,3 g

For comparison:

Digital ServiceCO2 Emissions
Parcel delivered to your doorstepca. 500 g
10 km trip by carca. 1500 g

“Just one hour of video conferencing or streaming (..) causes 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, requires 2-12 liters of water and demands a land area adding up to about the size of an iPad Mini” Science Daily reported last year (citing a Purdue University study). As it is hard to imagine a digital media world without AV content, we’re looking at a massive climate challenge here.

The CO2 output of cutting-edge technologies is even more drastic. Artificial intelligence (AI) and its training as well as trading in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are particularly noteworthy. According to a group of American researchers, the computational effort for deep learning processes has increased by a factor of 300,000 (!) in the past six years. Professor and AI ethicist Aimee van Wynsberghe (currently employed at the University of Bonn) reports in an interview that “training a single Deep Learning Natural Language Processing model produces as much CO2 emissions as five cars over their lifetime” and that “Google’s Alpha Go produces as much CO2 over the course of 40 days of training as 1,000 hours of air travel or the carbon footprint of 23 US households.” Other researchers confirm this disastrous record. Of course, it must be taken into account here that very few people use IT technology at this level.

The emissions in the often hyped NFT or crypto art scene are extremely problematic:

NFT ActionCO2 Emissions
Mine (1x)57.000 g
Place bid (1x)16.000 g
Withdraw bid (1x)5.000 g
Sell (1x)35.000 g
Transfer ownership (1x)21.000 g

Fortunately, the NFT thing also isn’t a global mass phenomenon yet (especially when compared to video streaming). According to the Financial Times, there were about 360,000 token owners in 2021. However, DappRadar reports that NFTs have already gone through about 30 million wallets, and a look at the entire crypto industry (Bitcoin, distributed ledgers & Co.) will quickly reveal a huge – and still growing – carbon footprint.

What to do?

In terms of mitigating climate-damaging devices/workflows and promoting Green IT, there are already a number of good tips and offers, roughly summarized below:

Hardware purchase and use

Software development

  • Internalize the principles of Green Software Engineering: -- Build applications that are carbon efficient -- Build applications that are energy efficient -- Consume electricity with the lowest carbon intensity -- Build applications that are hardware efficient -- Maximize the energy efficiency of hardware -- Reduce the amount of data and distance it must travel across the network -- Build carbon-aware applications -- Focus on step-by-step optimizations that increase the overall carbon efficiency
  • don’t train new AI models all the time and/or move training from the cloud to local devices
  • give preference to SolarCoin, IOTA & Co. over Bitcoin & Co. for crypto and DLT.

Software Usage

  • do not send unnecessarily large attachments
  • store frequently used documents in the cloud
  • but: download frequently used AV media, don’t stream them
  • do not print everything
  • rely more on text and/or audio and less on video (a zoom call without camera saves 96% emissions)
  • but: a video call plus XR technology is better than a business trip by plane
  • stream in standard resolution and not HD (saves 86% emissions)
  • turn off autoplay functions on streaming services
  • use alternative search engines, e.g. ecosia.org (which donates large parts of its surplus to nature conservation projects)
  • keep in mind some actions have a rather limited effect (emails) while others really impact your carbon emissions (HD streaming)

BBC and Netflix as role models?

The concept of Green IT and sustainability has now arrived at almost all major media companies. Many of them have set up their own programs. The efforts of the BBC and Netflix are examples of this.

The BBC seems to rely primarily on the so-called albert toolkit: “Our toolkit comprises a carbon calculator and Carbon Action Plan. The calculator allows you to work out the carbon footprint of your production, enabling you to see the impact of your production. The Carbon Action Plan is designed for those productions who not only want to measure their carbon footprint but actively take steps towards reducing it.” This is primarily about green, sustainable production preparation, production offices, studios and stages, travel for productions, on-site media relations and post-production.

Netflix also shows ambition on its sustainability page: “By the close of 2022, Netflix will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.” The U.S. streaming giant wants to achieve this goal by significantly reducing internal emissions and investing heavily in external projects (forest protection/management, ecosystem conservation, biodiversity and other types of high-impact climate protection).

Interestingly, the focus almost always seems to be on emissions savings in content production or fostering green projects elsewhere. Little to no information can be found on the sustainability of the overall IT infrastructure or even the core services offered (tons of “bingeable” video content across the board).

Green IT at DW

As for Deutsche Welle, the broadcaster now has its own sustainability team with a dedicated info page on the web (and also offers a number of resources and tips to its employees on the intranet). Following up on various sustainability reports, DW adopted a fairly comprehensive climate protection strategy in 2021. The goal: 30% reduction (compared to 2019) by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2045 at the latest, with a focus on business travel and commuting, energy management, procurement and content production. As early as 2020, DW co-signed a “Joint Declaration on Sustainability in Film and Series Production.” Individual programs successfully participated in various green production programs. So DW is on a pretty good path.

Whether the organization can buy refurbished or fair trade hardware (or solar chargers) on a larger scale, whether there should be rules to turn off webcams during long calls, what happens to energy-intensive workflows in the data center or unsustainable bloatware, and how DW will equip broadcasting houses with smart air conditioning and lighting systems – these and similar questions are to be discussed in designated working groups.

More resources

To learn more about Green IT and sustainable media tech, check out the slides/materials for the EBU’s Green AI workshops and Sustainability Summit, the Green IT Guide by apress, or the Green Computing page on Wikipedia.

Alexander Plaum