Literature Review and Policy Principles for Streaming and Digital Media Carbon Footprinting
DIMPACT was established to support companies to estimate and address the greenhouse
gas (GHG) emissions from serving digital media and entertainment products. As these
products use data centres and data transmission networks for processing and distributing
digital content, companies that are part of DIMPACT are committed to identifying and
supporting the implementation of actions that reduce the Information, Communication and
Technology (ICT) sector’s energy consumption and carbon footprint.
When thinking about the emissions of the ICT sector, it is important to consider both the
‘enabling effects’ of the sector to drive the decarbonisation of carbon-intensive industries1, as
well as the energy and carbon impacts of the activities of the sector itself. Whilst the former is
important, this paper focuses on the latter as it is closely aligned with the goals of DIMPACT
and its participants. As The Climate Group’s analysis showed long ago, the ‘enabling effects’
of ICT to drive decarbonisation of carbon-intensive industries outweigh the carbon footprint
by orders of magnitude.
That said, because climate change has reached such a critical point, an “all-of-society
approach” (UN Environment Programme) is called for and we are committed to working
across the value chain to reduce the sector’s contribution to global greenhouse gases. We
understand that the energy consumption of data centres and networks currently represents
about 2-3% of global electricity consumption, driving 0.6% of total GHG emissions.2 However,
we want to put into context the reality that:
The digital industry is more efficient than other industries and is, therefore, further on
track to meet global decarbonisation goals as compared to other sectors such as
Aviation, International Shipping, Cement, and others.3 When it comes to individual
actions, we also know that activities such as reducing food waste and changing
energy sources in our homes are more impactful than changing behaviours relating
to the digital sector.4 Individual actions on changing behaviours related to the use of
digital products and services are comparatively less urgent, hence, system-wide
changes (driven by collaboration) are key to decarbonising the digital sector.
2. So much of our world depends on digital services, and fortunately society’s expanded
reliance on digital services has not resulted in significant increases in overall sectoral energy demand. We must still strive for efficiency everywhere (especially
from screens and personal devices), but increased demand for digital services has
not caused proportional growth in energy consumption or carbon emissions.
3. There are complexities in the relationship between data traffic, energy consumption,
and carbon emissions that require careful consideration before making real-world
decisions, due to modelling and data access limitations. Actions towards
decarbonisation should therefore be driven by stakeholder-specific evidence and
state-of-the-art data, to avoid potential unintended adverse consequences. As an
industry, we are actively seeking improved data for decision-making to address this.
Some DIMPACT participants are considered part of the ICT sector - or have segments of their
business that fall in this category - whereas others are wholly part of the Entertainment and
Media sectors. Therefore, different participants will have varying levels of operational control
of ICT activities. However, what they have in common is a goal to understand how their
actions and broader influence can impact the end-to-end impacts of delivering digital
We know that climate change and energy security concerns are driving many countries to
identify ways to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and lower their carbon footprint. The
digital sector and those that rely on the digital sector for delivering their products and
services should therefore be focused on ensuring that we make the most high-impact and
responsible changes to support these efforts, grounded in strong data and holistic evidence.
This paper is split into two parts. Part 1 outlines the policy suggestions that we have reached
based on DIMPACT’s experience and review of the literature. Part 2 summarises the latest
technical and methodological thinking on digital emissions, upon which the policy
recommendations are based.
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