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Climate Change And The Digital Economy - The Hidden Costs

By Katerina Zalamova & Cormac Kelly

· industry challenges,smart city tech,data industry,smart cities,climate change

Climate change is a global challenge that affects everyone, everywhere. - UN SDG 13

According to a search in the archives of NPR, it wasn't until 1989 that the phrase global warming was officially used. Its introduction to the mass media and culture is due to the Tennessee Democrat senator Albert Gore. He questioned the president's commitment to environmental protection when he learned that the administration of George Bush Sr. had tampered with testimony on global warming from a leading scientist.

Since then, the Climate Change becomes a global challenge which needs coordinated action involving every single one of us. The efforts to solve it have been recollected in the definition of the UN Sustainable Development Goal #13 in the UN Agenda 2030.

Human industrial activity is the main reason behind the climate change

Scientists attribute the global warming trend observed since the mid-20th century to the human expansion of the "greenhouse effect" — warming that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space.


On Earth, human activities are changing the natural greenhouse. Over the last century the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This happens because the coal or oil burning process combines carbon with oxygen in the air to make CO2. To a lesser extent, the clearing of land for agriculture, industry, and other human activities has increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.


The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 412 parts per million in the last 150 years. The the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their Fifth Assessment Report, also concluded there's a better than 95 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have caused much of the observed increase in the Earth's temperatures over the past 50 years.


Although, changes in the Sun activity can be assumed as a reasonable cause for the climate change today, climate models that include solar irradiance changes can’t reproduce the observed temperature trend over the past century or more without including a rise in greenhouse gases.

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The hidden heating costs from the Digital Economy

Today, we are well aware that our human activities and our industries in the physical world are contributing to the climate change because of our energy consumption as a first reason. But, when we thinking about Internet, digital services and all human activities in the on-line virtual space, we tend to forget that these activities are also directly related to the global warming.

The physical infrastructure and energy consumption which make possible the existence of the Virtual World are hidden from us, the users. Worst, in most of the cases, they are hidden from the view of the designers of the digital solutions and the architects of the Virtual World.

We have been speaking about the impact of the exponential data generation on the costs of the Big Data Industry related to the need for data storage. In our last post, we suggested an estimation of the environmental impact of its need for physical storage.

In this post, we would like to present our study on this impact, using a specific case of a touristic mobile app in New York City. We understand that for many a tiny mobile app for tourists is nothing special. Moreover, the number of this kind of app is incredibly large, boosted from the beliefs of their creators that the data market is huge. But, what we found is the same goes for their negative environmental impact constantly adding to the sum of others produced by other industries.

A touristic mobile app in New York City

New York City welcomed a record 65.2 million visitors in 2018. We take this number and analyze the impact of these people as a users of a mobile app. Let's imagine our mobile app as a collective representation of all the apps which the visitors in New York City were using at their stay in the city. This representation is useful, for example, for the municipality team when considering the use of a unified city app.

Then, taking into account that the average data generation by user is 1,7 MB of data every second and the average electricity consumption for data storage is 2.6 W/TB, we obtain the following results. The data generated by the visitors in New York City in 2018 was 9.6 exa-bytes which needed 597.6 MWh of energy for its storage. The negative environmental impact created by this energy consumption was 3.5 million tonnes CO2. Additionally, It generated a USD 110K revenue for the electricity providers.

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Urgent need for building awareness

The results of the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019 showed that international tourist arrivals surpassed 1.4 billion in 2018, beating predictions by two years. And, we would not be totally incorrect to say that these visitors also participated in the Digital Economy through different apps.

Exporting the results from the New York study above, we can estimate that in the ideal theoretical case, these visitors would been generating 205.6 exa-bytes of data which would created a energy demand of 12.8 GWh and a negative environmental impact of 75.8 million tonnes CO2.

It is imperative to build awareness about this topic as the general opinion about the Digital Economy is to be a path to a brilliant sustainable future. In our previous post, we already suggested some technological designs which can solve this negative environmental impact.

We truly believe that the digital transformation is here to stay. It brings novel future scenarios and opportunities for the humanity. But, we advocate for a holistic awareness of its impacts which will help the creators to positively build and explore these futures.

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