Aftermath of COVID-19
The pandemic has had a huge impact on how we interact with one another. Our world has become more reliant on internet communication than ever before.
This month we are going to take a lighter look at some of the impacts, and what repercussions and benefits we may expect from a growing digital world.
Increased Online Shopping
Online shopping has grown as a way to obtain goods, from basic staples to take out food delivery. This does have an impact on car emissions, rather than everyone driving their vehicles round-trip to go shopping, 1 vehicle can deliver the goods ordered by many.
But is this really the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions?
In 2017 an article in the Sierra magazine addressed this question:
What’s better for the environment, shopping at a store or online?
“This is a pretty tough question because there are so many variable factors. One study found that online shopping consumed an average of 30 percent less energy than traditional, brick-and-mortar shopping. That’s mainly because people drive to stores to purchase products. But the number-crunchers of that study also conceded that there was significant uncertainty and variability in their analysis, especially regarding transport to the retail store (fuel economy, trip length, purchases per trip, etc.).
Another study contends that shopping online has a greater impact on the environment, when considering the following factors:
- Many people do not drive alone, but go shopping with others, hence total purchases average more than four items per trip, thereby reducing miles driven per item.
- Shoppers often engage in other activities while at the mall, so miles traveled can’t be assigned only to shopping.
- A lot more goods purchased online get returned, which requires repackaging and shipping (33 percent compared with just 7 percent from stores).
- Online products often require a whole lot more packaging. You can also simply bike or walk to the store, or drive a very efficient car, any of which beats online shopping in terms of environmental impact.
To counter some of these problems, online advocates recommend that consumers
- Do not ask for same-day or next-day shipping.
- Purchase more than one item at a time.
- Ask for eco-friendly packaging.
- Avoid impulsive spending by asking yourself, “Do I really need this?” every time before you click “add to cart.”
Reduction in air travel
The good news is the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented reductions greenhouse gases. In a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences of United States they reported “We find that, after accounting for meteorological variations, lockdown events have reduced the population-weighted concentration of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter levels by about 60% and 31% in 34 countries, with mixed effects on ozone. Reductions in transportation sector emissions are largely responsible for the NO2 anomalies.
The impact on the business world of the global lockdown has resulted in turning to the internet for business meetings. While this may not be ideal for all, it definitely is good for the environment to meet online rather than traveling to meet in person.
Unfortunately the downside is that many people are stranded away from home. Until countries feel safe to reopen their borders commercial flights are very limited.
What impact will increased internet use have?
Before the pandemic, internet use was rapidly growing. Every time we go online, send an email, take a digital photo the data is stored somewhere. Think about it. A huge amount of the data going into those data centers consist of photos of dinners, deserts and, of course, selfies. And not just the good ones. Every single image you take. In fact, every picture you have ever taken with your iPhone, sent on you computer is stored at a data center.
Let some of these data use statistics sink in for a minute!
At the beginning of 2020, the number of bytes in the digital universe was 40 times more than the number of stars in the observable universe.
In 2019, the number of emails sent every minute was 188 million!
To give you a more visual image “If we were to take all that information and store it in books, we could cover the entire area of the US or China in 13 layers of books.” Dr. Martin Hilbert of the University of Southern California said.
These statistics are based on pre-pandemic use, you can expect these to grow as society turns more towards a digital world.
What are the costs energy wise of internet use?
While you may think of the Internet as an immaterial object, the data that makes up the Internet is actually stored at a very physical location: data servers all around the world. And these data servers require energy to operate.
Around 10% of the world’s total electricity consumption is being used by the internet, according to a recent research report from Swedish KTH. … “There is a strong trend to push electricity consumption onto the network and data center infrastructure where energy costs are less transparent to consumers.”
Although the last 20 years have seen major efficiency improvements, predictions suggest these may be coming to an end. As a result of market growth and diminishing returns from existing approaches to efficiency improvements there is a suggestion that data center energy usage will double by 2030. If electricity continues to be a major source of data center energy and is generated from non-renewable sources, data center emissions could exceed the aviation industry which is currently responsible for 2% of annual human-generated CO2
Can alternative energy sources run data centers?
Most data centers plug directly into the local electricity grid and in most countries, non-renewables still make up a significant part of the electricity mix. This is relevant to data center electricity usage because it is not possible to guarantee 100% renewables if their electricity is sourced from the grid.
When solar energy is advanced enough to provide a stable source, we can’t simply blanket the country-side with Photo Voltaic (PV) fields the size of cities to capture more of the sun’s energy, because that would upset the earth’s albedo ratio – the resultant reflection of radiation would, ironically, increase temperatures and contribute to global warming!
However we proceed in this new digital world we need to find a balance, global warming is still the biggest threat to our environment. We must also pay attention to the invisible world of the internet and how it can be managed wisely and safely.
Follow up to August Newsletter
Our August newsletter covered the possible impacts we may be facing from climate change.
We received this article from Medical News Today and they asked us to share with our audience.
The more we learn about what to expect as the climate changes the better we will be able to prepare and come up with solutions.
West Nile virus in the US: A case study on climate change and health
Scientists around the world agree that we are currently facing a climate crisis in which global heating is threatening wildlife and primary resources. This crisis also affects humans by impacting the spread of infectious diseases. In this feature, we look at one such prominent example: the spread of the West Nile virus. (Full article)
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