Tweaks in digital service design can reduce carbon footprint, says study

carbon footprintImage: Tweaking digital service design can reduce their carbon footprint, says new study. Photo: courtesy of University of Bristol.

Researchers from the University of Bristol, through a study, found that digital technology companies can reduce the carbon footprint of YouTube and other services by tweaking how they are designed.

The human-computer interaction researchers studied how much power was consumed to provide YouTube videos to people across the world in 2016, in order to estimate the carbon footprint of the streaming service in that period.

The subsequent analysis showed that nearly 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent were emitted by the service, which is almost the same quantity of emissions coming from a city such as Glasgow.

The carbon emissions come from servers and networking devices that are behind streaming around a billion hours of YouTube video to user devices each day.

The researchers also evaluated the reductions that could be brought about by eliminating one example of ‘digital waste’, such as avoiding sending images to users who are using the YouTube service only for listening to audio.

It was estimated that such a design tweak could bring down the carbon footprint by 100-500Kt CO2e a year, which is the carbon footprint of nearly 30,000 UK homes.

University of Bristol stated that while academic studies in the past identified ways in which interaction design could cut down the carbon footprint of digital services, this study became the first to quantify the benefits of one such design intervention.

University of Bristol Faculty of Engineering Sustainability and Computer Systems professor Chris Preist, the lead researcher of the study, said: “Digital services are an everyday part of our lives.

“But they require significant energy to deliver globally – not only in data centres, but also in networks, mobile networks and end devices – and so overall can have a big carbon footprint.”

Preist and his team believe that sustainable interaction design (SID) can potentially deliver more carbon savings compared to what companies are currently exploring as part of their corporate greenhouse gas reduction strategies.

The SID study deployed a modelling toolkit developed by the human-computer interaction researchers to evaluate the carbon footprint of digital services, and also for estimating the changes that can be potentially brought about by alternate design decisions.

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