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Cassie: Hi I’m Cassie
Jennifer: And I’m Jennifer
Cassie: And you are listening to Green Talking, the podcast helping you learn English for good.
Jennifer: Today we are going to talk about digital waste. This session links to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 9: Industries, infrastructure and Innovation, and also Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption.
Cassie: So you Jennifer wanted to talk about this topic today because you feel it is something that we don’t usually talk about? I have to admit I don’t immediately think of digital waste when I think of sustainability. So why is this topic important to you?
Jennifer: Yeah I think digital waste is one of those ‘elephants in the room’, a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that nobody wants to deal with or even talk about. And so many challenges around sustainability relate to communication, being informed as consumers and having the knowledge to make decisions. And that’s what kind of we hope to achieve with this podcast too, opening up those conversations and just trying to ask some questions and help us all think about our consumption choices.
So, digital waste. Since the pandemic we have been travelling a lot less, right? We’ve been making video calls instead which mean there’s no carbon emitted from travel, great! But let’s think about that a bit more. Imagine you have an hour long video call with someone maybe working on a shared document in the cloud.
Relying on that cloud computing and those video calls actually has a huge environmental impact and those data centres that support that support that activity them consume large amounts of electricity, often sourced from coal-fired power plants.
So I think we need some statistics to better understand the issue. I think it’s time for “Fun facts with Cassie”
Cassie: My favourite part of every episode. So fact number one: The world’s data centres which are the storehouses for enormous quantities of information — consume about three per cent of the global electricity supply and produce two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. So they consume more electricity than the entire United Kingdom and produce roughly the same amount of global greenhouse gas emission as global air travel.
Jennifer: That is crazy. We talk so much about air travel in the media. We talk about flight shame. People are so aware about the impact of flying and we just never talk about digital waste. I would have never thought it was the same:
Cassie: Ok fact number two: the number of data centres, so the number of those stores houses worldwide has grown from 500,000 in 2012 to more than 8 million today.
Jennifer: That is just mental. 500,000 data centres in 2012 to 8 million today. That is some strong growth.
Cassie: Ok and finally fact number three: Streaming through 4G data mobile networks consumes about four times as much electricity than streaming through WiFi
Jennifer: Ok so what that means is if I watch a programme on my mobile phone, on my data connection that is going to use four times as much energy as if I watch that same programme but connected on a wifi network. And that is because so the phone itself is very energy efficient, so when you are streaming something, the consumption comes almost entirely from the transmission of the data and not the phone’s energy use itself. So that is why we see such a big difference depending on which type of network you use to receive that information.
So, you might have seen that some research came out in 2019 suggesting that watching Netflix was one of the most polluting activities we can do as consumers. And it caused a lot of panic and a lot of people thought that we need to stop watching Netflix completely. But it turned out soon after that the report was actually falsified information, with some exaggerated numbers and some misrepresentation of the truth.
Cassie: Misrepresentation of the truth. So…fake news?
Jennifer: Fake news, yup. This is a good example of just how difficult it is to really understand what is happening in this area and understand our impact. We don’t really know who to believe.
Cassie: It’s actually not just a problem for us as consumers. A recent survey spoke to hundreds of IT leaders about their data centre practices and the findings are interesting. While data centres have an enormous impact as we have seen, energy efficiency ranked just fourth on the leaders’ priority list when building a new data centre. And, most respondents did not even know their data centre PUE, or Power Usage Effectiveness, this is the primary measure of data centre efficiency. Even worse, most of them often kept their data centres at needlessly cold temperatures, like keeping your fridge really, really cold – wasting large amounts of power.
Jennifer: Not good news.
Cassie: Not great at all but there are some projects that are starting to communicate about this issue. One of them is the International Energy Agency, the IEA, have created a calculator which lets you see how much carbon you produce by watching or streaming.
Jennifer: Yeah that’s really handy. And it just helps to start having those conversations. And it is really positive to see that some big companies in the private sector are starting to change. The ‘big four’ are taking action, so Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple, they have all committed to 100% renewable energy. And Google is apparently leading the way in they reached 100% renewable energy supply in 2017.
And so it’s great to see that that change is happening at the top in these huge companies and I hope that that will start to filter down and that we will start to more understanding of this need and start to see other companies doing similarly.
But renewable energy supply is not going to be enough, and actually doesn’t resolve one of the main problems which is the heat produced from data centres.
Cassie: So let’s think about those data centres a bit more. While most conversations about climate change are focused on limiting emissions from the automotive, aviation and energy sectors, it’s the communications industry that is on track to generate more carbon emissions than all of those sectors combined.
Jennifer: Yeah so we need to do something. There has been quite a lot of talk about locating data centres in cold countries to help them cool down and cut emissions. And Google actually tested this theory by opening a data centre in Finland back in 2009 and they announced in 2019 that they would invest a further €600 million into these projects. But I don’t know migrating 8 million data centres to Siberia seems like an unrealistic goal
Cassie: And surely that’s just going to heat up the surrounding area anyway? Won’t we just end up with Siberia overheating?
Jennifer: Yeah exactly, and as per usual we will not find the solution if we are just sticking a bandage over the problem, we need to treat the root and change the system.
Cassie: Work with and not against!
Jennifer: Work with and not against, exactly. So another example of exciting projects that are happening is in Norway where a data centre operator has promised that waste heat from their data centre in Oslo will be reused to warm 5,000 apartments in the city. The company has signed an agreement with a local district heating supplier to redistribute the heat generated by its data centre, which by the way is also renewably powered. It’s pretty cool. So imagine living in a flat that is heated by wind turbines, which are then helping to store your documents in the cloud!
Cassie: So I save my file and then I can turn on my light.
Jennifer: You save your file and then you save the planet.
Cassie: And Microsoft are also working towards changing their systems so that their data centres are much more efficient, rather than just using the same amount of energy but from renewable sources. Microsoft are also trialling a data centre underwater in Scotland, they believe that the water will cool the system, and also reduce some of the damage that can be experienced when exposed to oxygen.
Jennifer: Sounds ambitious. Um I don’t know it sounds like it risks just putting more heat into the sea instead of into the air.
Cassie: Well, yes, it’s far too soon to tell if the project will be successful. And the last thing we need is to increase the sea temperature even more. But the most important thing is that we are trying, because it is through research and development that we will find solutions!
Jennifer: So research and development, data centres, renewable energy supply that all sounds great but can we do as consumers. What about at the other end of the scale?
Let’s talk about emails. So had you thought about this topic previously? Had you thought about the environmental impact of your emails?
Cassie: No not really.
Jennifer: Yeah so there’s an average of 240 million emails sent in the world per minute, and around 20% of those emails are never opened.
Cassie: Whoa. Can you say that again!
Jennifer: Yeah so 240 million emails are sent in the world per minute, and around 20%, 1 in 5, 20% of those emails are never opened.
Cassie: I’m definitely guilty of not opening all of my emails. And now to find out that each of those emails has a footprint.
Jennifer: It’s just the scale. Like, 240 million emails per minute how many emails is that sent in the world since the start of this episode. I don’t know… billions! It’s just mind-boggling.
Cassie: And in our research I found out that a short email can add about 4 grams of CO2 to the atmosphere and then the average email is about 10 grams and an even bigger email with a big attachment can have a footprint of 50 grams of carbon emissions. A typical year of incoming email is the equivalent of driving 200 miles in an average car. I just can’t get my head around that. And the global carbon footprint from spam or junk mail or those newsletters that you never read annually is equivalent to the greenhouse gases pumped out by 3.1 million passenger cars in a year.
Jennifer: That is crazy. So just by not even doing anything, by receiving these emails globally we are creating the same amount of pollution as 3.1 million passenger cars. That’s just terrifying.
Cassie: It really is.
Jennifer: And storing all those emails in your inbox means that every time you open up your computer or your phone you are using energy to pull that data out and present that email on your screen.
So for any emails with attachments, it’s being stored in the email provider’s server for you. And that’s great, and its really useful for things you need, but personally, I receive literally thousands of emails and attachments that I read once and then never ever again.
Cassie: Same. So not only is it really annoying having loads of old emails, newsletters, promotional emails or being cc’d into emails that aren’t even relevant to you and having them in your inbox, it’s actually really bad for the environment!
So the Carbon Literacy project suggests a few things you can do to lower your e-mail carbon emissions:
Jennifer: Number one- reduce the size of emails by lowering the resolution and compressing images.
Cassie: Number two- regularly clean and maintain mailing lists.
Jennifer: Number three- remove any contacts that unsubscribe, and update any changed email addresses immediately.
Cassie: Number four- check your emails thoroughly before sending to ensure they contain all the necessary (and correct) information, to avoid the need for a follow-up email.
Jennifer: And number five- link to files or information online rather than adding an attachment.
I think that’s really clever and really simple to not put a pdf in attachment but actually link to it online. Yeah I think wherever possible it is definitely something that I try to do if I know I am going to send lots of emails referring to one document. I do tend to put it online and then send a link rather than as an attachment. And it’s just a new habit really to get in to.
So there are some handy apps and websites that can help you with this as well. One example of is Cleanfoxwhich is pretty useful to help you automatically delete all those emails and help you unsubscribe.
Cassie: Wait, Jennifer are you telling our listeners to unsubscribe!
Jennifer: Yeah, I think we might be the only podcast that says ‘and remember to unsubscribe!’
Cassie: Yes but it’s true, don’t subscribe to us.
Jennifer: Don’t subscribe!
Cassie: Or anything else for that matter, unless you really care. And if you change your mind about that newsletter, or that YouTube channel in the future, take two seconds to unsubscribe!
So that brings us towards the end of our episode today
Jennifer: Already. Well we don’t want to have too big of digital footprint, do we?
Cassie: No not at all
Jennifer: So this is obviously quite a complex topic and hopefully this episode has given you lots of food for thought. So Cassie what has our chat made you think about today?
Cassie: So I’m going to finally unsubscribe from those newsletters. And probably from those podcasts I’m not really listening to. Not only are they clogging my inbox and my phone but they are harming the planet.
Jennifer: Yeah, yeah definitely. And yeah this is a topic that I find fascinating, so thank you for exploring it with me today. And I think maybe the most important thing is just to keep having these conversations and talking about this. And of course delete those old emails and unsubscribe.
So thanks for joining this episode of Green Talking, the podcast helping you learn English for Good. We’ll link to all of the topics discussed today in the podcast notes but we’re really to keen to hear from you! How have you made a change after today’s podcast? What have you learned? What would you like us to talk about next? You can join the conversation on social media at we’re @greentalkfr. And we look forward to you joining us next week!
Jennifer: Thanks for listening! And my catchphrase of the week today is:
Turn the planet clean, let’s get Talking Green!
Cassie: Ok keep brainstorming!
Jennifer: If you could see Cassie’s face in response to this…!
Jennifer: See you next time!
sustainability => noun the property of being sustainable.
contributor => noun a writer whose work is published in a newspaper or magazine or as part of a book; someone who contributes (or promises to contribute) a sum of money
relate => verb give an account of; have or establish a relationship to; be in a relationship with; make a logical or causal connection; have to do with or be relevant to
informed => adj. having much knowledge or education
consumption => noun the utilization of economic goods
pandemic => adj. existing everywhere; epidemic over a wide geographical area; noun an epidemic that is geographically widespread; occurring throughout a region or even throughout the world
travelling => noun the act of going from one place to another
emitted – past tense of ‘to emit’, to send out a beam, noise, smell, or gas
computing => noun the procedure of calculating; determining something by mathematical or logical methods; the branch of engineering science that studies (with the aid of computers) computable processes and structures
sourced – to get something from a particular place
coal-fired => adj. fueled by burning coal
storehouses => large building for keeping things
roughly => adv. (of quantities) imprecise but fairly close to correct
emission => noun the act of emitting; causing to flow forth; the occurrence of a flow of water (as from a pipe); the release of electrons from parent atoms; any of several bodily processes by which substances go out of the body; a substance that is emitted or released
worldwide => adj. spanning or extending throughout the entire world; of worldwide scope or applicability; involving the entire earth; not limited or provincial in scope
transmission => noun the act of sending a message
exaggerated => adj. enlarged beyond truth or reasonableness; enlarged to an abnormal degree; represented as greater than is true or reasonable
fake => adj. not genuine or real
yup => yes
priority => noun preceding in time; status established in order of importance or urgency
respondents. – people who respond to e.g. a survey
needlessly => adv. without need
fridge => noun a refrigerator
handy => adj. easy to use
renewable => adj. capable of being renewed; replaceable
unrealistic => adj. not realistic
overheating => noun excessive heating
bandage => noun a piece of soft material that covers and protects an injured part of the body;
supplier => noun someone whose business is to supply a particular service or commodity
redistribute => verb distribute anew
file => noun a set of related records (either written or electronic) kept together
trialling. => the process of formally testing a product to discover how effective or suitable it is:
mind-boggling => extremely surprising and difficult to understand or imagine
incoming => adj. arriving at a place or position
spam => noun unwanted email (usually of a commercial nature sent out in bulk)
junk => noun something useless
globally => adv. throughout the world
stored => adj. accumulated until needed
server => noun a computer that provides client stations with access to files and printers as shared resources to a computer network
literally => adv. (intensifier before a figurative expression) without exaggeration; in a literal sense
annoying => adj. causing irritation or annoyance; noun the act of troubling or annoying someone
promotional => adj. of or relating to serving as publicity; of or relating to advancement
mailing => noun the transmission of a letter; mail sent by a sender at one time
update => noun supply with recent information
thoroughly => adv. in a complete and thorough manner
follow=>up => noun an activity that continues something that has already begun or that repeats something that has already been done
tend => verb have care of or look after; have a tendency or disposition to do or be something; be inclined
subscribe => verb receive at regular intervals
newsletter => noun report or open letter giving informal or confidential news of interest to a special group
hopefully => adv. it is hoped; with hope; in a hopeful manner
clogging => adj. preventing movement
fascinating => adj. capturing interest as if by a spell; capable of arousing and holding the attention