Climate Action

Why we need a planetary health star rating for apps

Image: Pixabay

Martin Tomitsch
Professor in Interaction Design & Director of Innovation, The University of Sydney
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SDG 13: Climate Action

  • With more than 7.5 billion forecast to connect via online services by 2030, digital technology’s contribution to global GHG emissions is likely to increase over the next decade.
  • Reducing the digital carbon footprint should not be the sole responsibility of consumers.
  • Tech companies need to be more proactive in making the environmental impact of online services visible.

Technological progress, driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has dramatically changed how we live and work. Digital technology, used in the right way, promises to cut global greenhouse gas emissions, from creating more efficient transportation to enabling us to attend meetings online.

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But there is a hidden cost to using digital technology. Each digital interaction, whether it’s crunching algorithms or streaming video content, is powered by physical infrastructure. And that physical infrastructure requires energy for its operation.

Increasing pressure from the public and global efforts like COP26 are having a positive effect on the sustainability agendas of digital technology companies. Many of the world’s largest tech companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft have committed to meeting climate goals.

But two problems need to be addressed before we run out of time: scale associated with the rapid growth of internet usage and a lack of transparency about the impact of consumer-facing online services.

The problem of scale

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred internet usage and led to a surge in video streaming. Even when lockdowns come to an end, remote work is likely here to stay, and more and more people will use more and more online services.

As the amount of time we spend online grows, so too will the physical infrastructure on which online services operate. The environmental impact of a single Google search or sending an email may be small, but with an estimated 4.7 billion internet users, it all adds up.

The contribution of digital technology to global greenhouse gas emissions is estimated to be in the range of 1.4% to 5.9%. In comparison, all commercial aviation combined accounts for about 2.4%. And these are figures from before the pandemic. Emissions are likely to increase with the number of internet users being projected to reach over 7.5 billion by 2030, and more industries and companies turning to artificial intelligence, blockchain and other data-intensive technologies.

Global internet user growth, showing a 6% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). Image: CISCO

A thoroughly researched report about the environmental impact of video streaming concluded that while the impact is smaller than originally reported, it is becoming increasingly likely that growing data demand will exceed efficiency gains.

Projections of the emissions from digital systems, and the 1.5°C trajectory agreed by the tech and telecom sectors. Image: The Royal Society

Data centres, one of the main contributors to digital carbon emissions, have benefited from advancements in computing technology and strategies to reduce their energy consumption. But because of growing data demands, their electricity usage is expected to significantly grow by 2030.

Electricity usage trends (in TWh) for data centers between 2020 and 2030. Image: Engineering and Applied Science Letters

Lack of transparency when it comes to digital consumption

There are many suggestions for what consumers can do to reduce their digital carbon footprint. It’s true, that as consumers we can and should do our share, such as keeping our devices for longer and listening to music on audio-only platforms like Spotify rather than YouTube. But these suggestions shift the responsibility entirely to the consumers. It’s a reminder of how BP popularized the term “carbon footprint” about 20 years ago, insinuating that climate change was the doing of individuals rather than companies.

We need to prevent this history repeating itself in the digital technology sector. The tech industry must live up to its responsibility. Companies may be pursuing climate goals, but the environmental impact of the services that billions of consumers use daily to stream content, connect with each other, store data in the cloud or play online video games remains invisible.

Other industries can offer directions for how to address the issue of transparency in the digital technology sector. In the fashion industry, consumer-facing services like Good On You rate brands in terms of their practices and commitment to sustainability. When it comes to household appliances, many countries encourage or require the display of an energy rating. The EU has a directive for energy consumption labels ranging from A to G. In Australia and New Zealand this takes the form of a 6-star label. Australia and New Zealand also have a health star rating system for food which represents a series of underlying factors as a simple 5-star rating.

These rating systems help consumers with making purchasing decisions. Importantly, they put the responsibility on the companies to calculate and make visible the impact of the products they sell.

Revealing the impact of digital tech

What if each online service, from Netflix and YouTube to Zoom and TikTok, comes with a rating that makes the underlying environmental impact visible to users? The rating could draw on data from initiatives like DIMPACT (which Netflix joined recently) that develop tools to calculate the carbon emissions of digital consumption.

The problem is that there is no economic incentive for the providers of online services. But tech companies like Apple that have control over platforms and app ecosystems have a unique opportunity to drive positive change — beyond their own practices — by implementing a platform-wide rating system. Like Australia and New Zealand’s health star rating for food, each app in the App Store could opt in to display its rating. Following the example of Good On You, the rating could include multiple dimensions. For instance, it could display the energy consumption required for delivering the service, the environmental rating of the data centres used by the service, and even factors like the labour practices involved in making and maintaining the app (combating modern slavery in the tech sector).

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help companies reduce carbon emissions?

Let’s be honest, not many people will stop watching Netflix even if the service’s environmental impact is made transparent. But a rating system would shift the responsibility from the consumer to the company. To improve its rating, the company will have to actively invest in environmental practices. This might include transitioning to more environmental data centres and giving users the ability to make environmental choices like watching movies in standard definition, which is estimated to reduce emissions by up to 86% compared to high definition.

Many of the digital consumption practices that contribute to global emissions are by design. It’s time for the tech industry to consider the impact of those design decisions on the environment.

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