Time to Move Back to Paper?

18th May 2015

For some time now, Keep Me Posted has been aware that digital is not always more environmentally friendly, or green, than paper. Having spoken to our partners and supporters we understand that there are environmental consequences to using digital that are rarely acknowledged.

Greenpeace point out that the process of making paper and then printing on it only accounts for 1.1% of the World’s greenhouse gas emissions. We are also pretty good at reusing our paper too with 71% of it being recycled. What you might be surprised to discover, is quite how much energy working online uses. For example, sending an email with a 400k document, which equates to a fairly large word document with a few pictures, to 20 people uses the same amount of energy as switching a 100 watt light bulb on for 20 minutes.

Those of our supporters who read the Sunday Times, may well have come across an article last weekend featuring Andrew Ellis, a professor of optical communications at Aston University. Professor Ellis paints a truly worrying picture as he explains quite how much of the UK’s energy is being used on data storage and transmission over the internet. As it stands, the internet currently uses 8% of Britain’s power output, though some believe this figure could be twice that and closer to 16%. To put that into perspective, 8% is the equivalent of three nuclear power stations but as Professor Ellis explains demand is still rising. “It is growing so fast, currently at an exponential rate, that, in theory, it could be using all the UK power generation by 2035.”

This increase is caused by the fact that the power the internet draws is doubling every four years. As soon as 2020, the current internet infrastructure in place will have hit its upper limit of the data it can transmit.

Professor Ellis concludes by suggesting a way to solve the issue: “We cannot make all that extra power, so we will have to restrict or reduce access, perhaps by metering consumers so they pay for what they use.” With so many of our services being moved from paper to online, maybe it is time to start thinking about moving them back?

Judith Donovan