November 14, 2021

The Intersection of Digital Communications and Climate Change

Most people are not aware of the environmental impact caused by our online habits and today’s methods of mass media and business communication. However, the reality is that the carbon emissions from tech infrastructure and the data servers that enable cloud computing now exceed those of pre-Covid air travel.

From the accelerated shift toward online shopping, to the rise of working from home video conferencing routines, the pandemic has had many reverberations on the scale and use of  technology. 

A key change is that many organisations are refocusing how they connect and engage with customers and audiences online. This represents a huge opportunity not only to bring additional value and experiences to relationships, but also adopt new sustainable approaches to digital communications and marketing. 

Your digital footprint = a carbon footprint

How we interact, send, and share online ultimately requires power and processing. Each action we take online also requires the movement of data through mass data centres that have a significant carbon footprint. 

While the use of renewable energy sources by data centres is progressively growing, most of the power they use is still generated by fossil fuels. The bigger responsibility—and opportunity—for technology companies is to reinvent existing, environmentally-damaging practices. 

With the mass scale and exponential growth of digital communications in particular, it is an opportunity to address climate change through innovative new approaches.

How can digital communications adapt?

According to United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen, “Only digital technologies move at the speed and scale necessary to achieve the kind of dramatic reduction in emissions that we need to see in the next 10 years.” 

Given the storage and streaming requirements of video, and its position as the most popular and fast-growing communication medium, it is a particular area of interest in how digital media can become more sustainable. 

Watching online videos accounts for the biggest chunk of the world's internet traffic (60%) and generates 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is roughly 1% of global emissions, according to The Shift Project. This is because, as well as the power used by devices, energy is consumed by the servers and networks that distribute the content.

At VML we identified the need to take a new approach and built a Player technology which enables data-driven, personalised video to be both scalable and sustainable. There is no increase in time or environmental impact whether video is being sent to 10 individuals or 1 billion. 

Sustainable communications delivering sustainable action

A necessary step toward the collective action needed to tackle the climate crisis is public awareness of the overwhelming benefits we will experience—if we reach our net emissions targets. These include not only environmental restoration but also health benefits and economic prosperity.

Tom Dowdall, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, highlighted that “ICT is crucial to tackling climate change”, and if you consider how fundamental the internet and digital marketing has been in raising awareness, it’s unlikely we would have seen the significant shift in both personal and political efforts without it.

This would also trigger progressive ripple effects such as public support and collective action for such causes, making it more likely governments and corporations will act. 

Digital media presents an opportunity to reach billions of people worldwide to communicate the importance of climate action. Digital communications hold untapped potential through personalisation—be it in advertising, campaigning, or more—it can significantly boost engagement, awareness, and action.

How companies are taking action to reduce their carbon footprint today

As Economist Lord Nicholas Stern said recently, “The costs of global inaction significantly outweigh the costs of action.” Stern also asserted that a new key challenge we face “is how to foster greater innovation and creativity, and to recognise and create the key mechanisms and dynamics of change.”

From Apple pledging to be entirely Carbon Neutral by 2030, to Amazon Web Services (AWS) aiming to power operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025, it’s clearer than ever how the climate crisis is affecting the workings of the world around us. The climate crisis changes how technological industries, businesses, governments, and more, must operate. It also shows significant public awareness—consumers are conscious actors who want the brands they interact with to represent the values and issues they care about. 

More examples of how corporations are responding to the climate crisis lies in ethical investing—according to a report from the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing, in 2020, assets under management using sustainable investing strategies in the United States reached $17.1 trillion. As well, COP26 has already shown progressive moves in this arena; the United States Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen vowed that the US would join Britain in backing the Climate Investment Funds' (CIF) new Capital Market Mechanism, which would help bring in new private climate funds and provide $500 million a year for initiatives like CIF's Clean Technology Fund. Yellen also acknowledged that alongside all else, climate change is “an economic, development and market-destabilizing issue”.

The fact that organisations are dedicating increased focus, funds, and resources to crucial new sustainable practices is an indication of how innovation is essential to chart a path away from the climate crisis. 

With the huge exponential growth in digital media, VML Technology has reinvented video to be both scalable and sustainable; a radical new approach to mass communications for today’s audiences needs. 

There is increased hope that climate change is being addressed by technologies which have the ability to rethink traditional approaches. These new, sustainable ways of how we live our lives will deliver a collective change that can make a real difference.

Grace Farrell
Content Creator & Copywriter