Examining the ICT Sector’s Carbon Footprint, New Report Finds Many Alarmist Claims Overstate Its Impact by a Factor of 10 or More

July 6, 2020

WASHINGTON— Alarmists claim the tech sector’s carbon footprint is getting out of control, but they are wildly misrepresenting facts. A new report released today by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank for science and technology policy, shows the information and communications technology (ICT) sector is not only making significant progress in decarbonizing, but also enabling other sectors to become more energy efficient.

“Many of the critics who raise alarms about the ICT sector’s carbon footprint have been overstating the case by a factor of 10 or more. They’ve gone as far as claiming that YouTube views of the hit song ‘Despacito’ consume more electricity than five African nations, or that video streaming produces as much emissions as France—all ridiculously false claims,” says Colin Cunliff, senior policy analyst at ITIF and author of the new report. “In fact, the ICT industry is one of the few sectors that is on track to decarbonize, and it is the first to develop sectoral, science-based targets to limit global warming.”

Technology companies account for half of all corporate procurement of renewables, the report notes, and ICT may already yield net reductions in global energy and carbon impacts as digital services optimize or replace traditionally non-ICT activities, such as teleworking to reduce business travel. Digitalization has the power to enable smarter use of energy in buildings, manufacturing, transportation, cities, and a host of other areas. In addition, widespread digitalization of homes and commercial buildings could lower the annual electricity demand by nearly 25 percent.

The ITIF report analyzes four sensational, widely reported claims about the energy consumption associated with ICT and finds that none withstand scrutiny. All four are based on data that is either inaccurate or misleading. They include:

  1. A purported finding by the Shift Project, which claims the emissions generated by watching 30 minutes of Netflix are the same as driving almost 4 miles.
  2. A dubious 2018 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, which found that cumulative emissions from Bitcoin mining alone could exhaust the remaining carbon budget to limit warming to 2°C.
  3. The widely reported but demonstrably false claim that downloads of “Despacito,” the first song to surpass 5 billion YouTube views, consumed as much electricity as five African Republic put together.
  4. The widely reported but misleading claim that using artificial intelligence to train natural language processing software generates as much CO2 as 315 round-trip flights between New York and San Francisco.

The report then examines the progress of decarbonization across the entire ICT sector, and it summarizes how the sector can enable smarter energy use and reduce greenhouse emissions.

“Like all sectors, ICT faces challenges in its efforts to decarbonize. But it is also a powerful technology that enables other sectors to become more energy efficient,” adds Cunliff. “The energy and carbon footprint of the tech sector deserves a clear-eyed discussion. That requires accurate data, both about ICT’s own energy consumption and its impacts on energy use in other sectors. Stories that overstate the impacts of ICT don’t help.”

Read the report.