Switching to digital documentation saves enormous amounts of paper, helping to protect forests from logging. This simple fact is often used as the obvious argument for going paperless. However, digitisation has both positive and negative impacts on the natural environment.
Paper is no longer all evil
In the case of digitisation, reducing paper production is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Its effect on our planet is a much more complicated problem. According to data from the American Forest and Paper Association, about 65% of paper is recycled in the US. Paper production methods have improved significantly in recent years, and those trees that are felled for paper production are soon replaced thanks to constant reforestation efforts. Besides, most of the paper produced is used for purposes other than printing documents, invoices or patient files. According to the data of the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), the production structure focuses on the materials used to manufacture packaging and boxes (32.5%). The manufacture of packaging paper is a growing market, while that for the paper used in printing had by 2018 decreased to almost half the levels of the record-breaking 2005-2006 period. Digital records have many other advantages over paper as well. They are safer and more durable, the data that they contain can be shared and analysed easily, and they allow companies to save space and increase business productivity.
Computers hungry for energy
A much more significant issue is that computers consume vast amounts of energy. It is estimated that the IT sector uses about 7% of the global electricity supply, with 34% of that being consumed by electronic devices (computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets) and 21% by data processing centres. The size of the global data resources, stored in a digital form, was estimated in 2003 at 5 exabytes (1 exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes), in 2015 it was already 4423 exabytes, and then by 2019 had grown to more than 10,000 exabytes. Data centres are required to store and process data efficiently. Such facilities may sometimes need as much energy as a medium-sized city. Today they consume about 30 billion watts in total, which corresponds to the power generated by about 30 nuclear power plants.
It is estimated that by 2030, data centres will consume 13% of the global energy output. Unfortunately, most of them use the energy produced conventionally and, as a result, every minute spent browsing the Internet increases the carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. One Google search query generates 0.2 grams of CO2, and Google receives 63,000 queries per second or 5.6 billion queries per day. Sending 65 emails results in producing the same emissions as that emitted by a medium-sized car driven one kilometre. Not to mention the amount of energy converted into heat by computers, laptops, data centres and smartphones. There is also some good news. The global tech companies strive to maintain their good image and prestige, which is why they increasingly often switch to using renewable energy sources. Following the Greenpeace report “Clicking Green”, Apple, Facebook and Google are leading in building renewably powered internet.
Large data centres are not the only problem, however. The production of lithium-ion batteries and accumulators is taking a heavy toll on the environment as well. Lithium and cobalt mining causes soil pollution and creates harmful waste, destroying the local ecosystems in the process. Also, it is estimated that about 35,000 children are employed in the Congolese cobalt mines, which are the primary supplier of the raw materials needed for battery production. The workers earn around 1-2 USD a day. And lastly, obsolete computers and smartphones often end up in the trash. Every year, humanity generates approximately 50 million tons of e-waste, with only about 20% being recycled.
It is evident that digitisation is not yet an ally of the natural environment, though it has the potential to become one. The problems that we face in the case of digitisation resemble those existing in the car industry. Electric cars powered by energy obtained via conventional sources do not limit CO2 emissions in any way - they merely transfer the emission sites elsewhere. This situation can only be changed by using energy from eco-friendly sources.