Is sustainable digitalisation possible?

Research into Bitcoin's eye-watering carbon footprint has challenged ideas that the virtual is greener. But sustainable digitalisation is possible, if we make smart choices.

Following the coverage of Bitcoin can be, frankly, exhausting. It’s either going to transform the economy and rework the digitalisation of the entire financial system. Or it will be a fad that’s going to burn out. Sometimes it feels that you can barely head into Clubhouse without coming across a room where someone is busy expounding its benefits. There’s a new thread to these discussions, though: is the growth of cryptocurrency destroying the planet?

This sudden environmental question mark came hard on the heels of one of the most climate change-focused companies throwing its weight behind Bitcoin. Elon Musk stimulated the cryptocurrency’s value by getting Tesla to buy $1.5bn of it, and announcing that the electric car-maker would accept it in payment — but then its value plummeted again, after another tweet from Musk. A poor investment AND a dent in the company’s green credentials with the suggestion that Bitcoin was speeding up climate change? Perhaps.

Recent research has highlighted that the combination of mining new Bitcoins, and processing the transactions, is consuming vast amounts of energy. Bitcoin is consuming more energy than Argentina. (Or is it New Zealand?) This is another data point in the accumulating evidence that points to Bitcoin being an environmentally “dirty” entity. As long ago as 2018, Nature published a paper suggesting that Bitcoin alone could push the planet past the 2 °C threshold.

Bitcoin: energy inefficient by design

There are some sobering truths here for the Bitcoin advocate. This environmental price is a hard cost to reduce — because being energy wasteful is built into the very concept. The nature of Bitcoin, which creates value through being a representation of the computing power needed to create it, requires this. It pushes Bitcoin miners into an arms-race to use ever more specialist hardware to mine currency more effectively. That has energy AND environmental costs in the use of specialised, quickly redundant hardware that is hard to recycle.

However, all these things are relative. As the BBC article linked above notes about the Cambridge research:

However, it also suggests the amount of electricity consumed every year by always-on but inactive home devices in the US alone could power the entire Bitcoin network for a year.

And, if one is comparing the crypto-based financial infrastructure and the traditional one, you have to wonder what the carbon footprint of all those expensive buildings and international flights is…

Sustainability in context

This illustrates why it’s rarely useful to look at these data points in isolation. There are good questions we need to pose about any technology when we consider its environmental impact. Is it additive to or is it replacing existing activity? Can we make comparisons of the costs?

And, of course, an awful lot depends on finding ways of reducing the energy burden inherent in the process. For example, the cost of cooling processors maxed out Bitcoin processing is significant — unless you put those servers somewhere damn cold:

Cost-effective mining centers based on renewable energy have also been established in Russia’s frozen lands of Siberia. The city of Norilsk is home to the mineral mining behemoth Norilsk Nickel but increasingly bitcoin mining is becoming an important economic driver. With temperatures in winter bottoming out at minus 40 degrees Celsius (which is roughly minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit), this is a perfect climate by which to keep computing machines cool.

It’s not energy use by or in itself that causes environmental impact — it’s how we generate that energy. If all Bitcoin operations were powered by sustainable energy, all would be fine. But, of course, they’re not. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have an impact in reducing their cost.

Sustainable digitalisation

Certainly, we’ve seen serious efforts from the biggest technology companies to offset the environmental costs of their business. Apple already claims to be carbon-neutral for its corporate operations, and is aiming to make that true for its entire supply chain by 2030. Amazon is buying up wind power coming online to fuel its operations.

While headlines which compare the power consumption of particular industries to countries are eye-catching, they aren’t informative. The environmental costs of digitisation are complex. Everything has a carbon cost, as Mike Berners-Lee (the brother of the inventor of the web) tallied a decade ago in his book How Bad Are Bananas.

So, yes, the electricity needed to run the infrastructure for a Zoom meeting creates an environmental cost. But, if that meeting replaces ones conducted face-to-face that involve carbon-emitting travel, then it might well be a more sustainable solution. If we can power that Zoom meeting more easily through sustainable energy than we can that fossil-fuelled commute, well, we win.

Digitalisation’s recycling challenge

Yes, digitalisation also causes other impacts — not least the growth of e-waste. But efforts are underway to address that: companies, including Apple, are upping their recycling game to create closed-loop supply chains.

And, that problem is, in of itself, easing. Many of us are finding that five-year-old computers, or three-year-old phones are just fine for our day-to-day use. If our replacement cycles slow down, and there’s evidence that’s happening, devices have a longer use. We reduce our volume of recycling, while also making sure we recycle more of it well.

The three pillars of sustainable digitalisation seem to be:

  • Make sure digitalisation replaces physical environmental costs, rather than increasing them
  • Power your digitalisation with sustainable energy
  • Keep your devices in use for as long as you can — and then recycle them

There is plenty to be hopeful about here: chips can get more efficient. The M1 processors in Apple’s latest Macs consume ⅓ of the power — and are significantly faster — than their Intel predecessors. We’ll need this kind of focus on energy-efficient computing power to make the digitalisation transition a green one.

The Digitalisation Sustainability decision

Perhaps, in our post-pandemic life, we will travel for work less. We could work on fast, energy-efficient computers, in homes we power with sustainable energy. Can we reinvest some of the money we used to spend on commuting into our homes? Could we power our Zoom-driven life with solar panels topped up, when needed, with energy from the local wind farm?

Yes, that seems like a rather idealistic vision. But it could be more achievable than you think. One small, but happy, story caught my eye: a new visitor centre at a nature reserve in Wales is not just carbon-neutral — it’s carbon negative! It generates more electricity from renewable sources than it uses.

Will digitalisation be a net environmental gain, or a cost? The answer is in our hands. If, once travel restarts, we go back to laying digital costs on top of physical ones, we’ll accelerate climate change. Can we find ways of keeping our digitalisation carbon-neutral, while using it to eliminate physical carbon generation? If so, then we start using it as a weapon in our fight against the next global crisis: climate change.


Photo by Rachmaddian Shotz on Unsplash