e-Waste Management

Steps towards sustainability: Minimising digital carbon footprint


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: carbon footprint and factors responsible

Mains level: India's digital carbon footprint, concerns, Government intervention and industry initiatives,

What’s the news?

  • The UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report for 2022 highlights a sobering reality: India’s carbon emissions policy, as of 2022, falls short of significantly reducing the national carbon footprint.

Central idea

  • India, as one of the world’s major contributors to global warming, is facing a concerning trend with the highest growth rate in carbon emissions. Recent years have witnessed a significant increase in electronic device usage, which has given rise to a pressing issue: the digital carbon footprint. To effectively combat this issue, it is imperative to adopt a multipronged approach.

What is meant by carbon footprint?

  • A carbon footprint is a measure of the total amount of greenhouse gases, primarily CO2 and other carbon compounds, that are emitted into the atmosphere as a result of human activities, particularly the consumption of goods and services, energy production, transportation, and various industrial processes.

What is meant by digital carbon footprint?

  • A digital carbon footprint refers to the environmental impact associated with the use of digital technologies, including electronic devices, software applications, and data centers.

Digital Carbon Footprint: A Growing Concern

  • Hardware Production: The production of hardware devices like laptops, smartphones, and microprocessors is a significant contributor to the digital carbon footprint. The machines used in manufacturing these devices emit substantial amounts of carbon dioxide during the process.
  • Energy Consumption During Device Use: Electronic devices require electricity for their operation. If the electricity used comes from non-renewable sources, such as coal or natural gas, the emissions generated during each device’s use add to its digital carbon footprint.
  • Smartphone Charging Emissions: Research conducted in 2021 revealed that global smartphone charging alone releases more than 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.
  • Data Centers:
  • The software used on electronic devices is typically stored and maintained in large data centers. These data centers demand a constant and intensive supply of electricity to operate efficiently and prevent system failures.
  • According to a 2022 report by the International Energy Agency, data centers contribute significantly to global electricity use, accounting for approximately 1–1.5 percent, which is equivalent to the combined electricity consumption of Germany and Japan.
  • Data Center Cooling Systems: In addition to the energy consumed for computing operations, data storage facilities require additional electricity to power massive cooling systems. These systems ensure that the servers and storage devices in data centers operate optimally, contributing further to the digital carbon footprint.
  • Digital Software Usage:
  • Every action in the life cycle of digital entities, whether it’s hardware or software, consumes energy and thereby contributes to the carbon footprint.
  • For instance, a seemingly simple action like conducting a Google search results in the creation of 0.2 grams of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Given the scale of online searches, this adds up to a substantial daily contribution, with Google’s operations, cloud services, and devices emitting over 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2020.
  • Corporate Efforts and Carbon Reduction:
  • Companies like Apple are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint by improving energy efficiency, adopting low-carbon design principles, and striving for carbon neutrality in their operations and supply chains.
  • Apple, for example, has reduced its carbon emissions by 40 percent between 2015 and 2022 and aims to achieve a 100 percent carbon-neutral supply chain and products by 2030.
  • Global Emission Reduction Goals: Despite commendable efforts by individual organizations, such initiatives alone may not be sufficient to meet the ambitious global emission reduction targets set by agreements like the Paris Agreement, which seeks to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030.

Government Intervention and Legislation

  • Global Goals and Emission Reductions: Government intervention is a crucial factor in achieving global climate goals. Some nations have implemented legislated emission reduction targets, which play a pivotal role in driving the efforts of technology organizations.
  • Inspiration from the United States: For instance, Apple’s initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint draw inspiration from the United States’ National Climate Task Force. This federal task force is dedicated to achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050, providing a clear mandate and incentive for companies to align with emission reduction goals.
  • Legislation in the Netherlands: Similarly, the Netherlands has enacted climate legislation, including a target of achieving a 49 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.
  • International Policies: Various other countries, including Denmark and the United Kingdom, have implemented policies and acts addressing carbon footprint reduction. These initiatives underline the global commitment to mitigating climate change and push technology companies to align their practices accordingly.
  • Indian Power Savings Guide: In India, the Ministry of Power’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) has established the Power Savings Guide. This initiative specifically targets technology emissions and includes an energy efficiency label for electronic devices.
  • Eco-Labels and Certifications: The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) offer the Energy Star program, which certifies energy-efficient products. These certifications, known as eco-labels, are part of a broader solution called ‘green computing,’ aimed at reducing the digital carbon footprint.

Way forward: Green computing

  • Energy Efficiency Focus: Green Computing is dedicated to enhancing the energy efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of computer systems. This approach aims to lower the digital carbon footprint associated with both hardware and software production and consumption.
  • Electricity Source Significance: A critical aspect of reducing the digital carbon footprint is the source of electricity used to power electronic devices. Initiatives aimed at increasing the proportion of renewable energy in a nation’s electricity supply are vital for emissions reduction.
  • India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC): India, through initiatives like the NAPCC, emphasizes the importance of transitioning to renewable electricity sources to mitigate the carbon footprint attributed to energy consumption.
  • Private Sector Initiatives: Private sector players are also actively involved in green computing developments. For instance, Apple’s iOS 16.1 features Clean Energy Charging, a provision that assesses the carbon emissions of the local energy grid and charges the iPhone when the electricity source is greener. This innovation is currently available in the United States as of July 2023.
  • Green Software Foundation (GSF): The GSF plays a significant role in the field of green computing. It offers research, tools, and code for building applications with lower carbon footprints. Moreover, it provides frameworks for applications that can adapt their behavior based on the availability of clean, low-carbon electricity sources.
  • Government Support: Governmental support for initiatives like GSF is essential, as these organizations provide information tools to enable sustainable software and hardware production.
  • Eco-Labels and Certifications: Eco-labels like Energy Star and BEE offer valuable information to developers and users, helping them reduce their digital carbon footprint. Additionally, the private sector has made notable progress with initiatives like the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) and TCO Certified, which focus on both hardware and software sustainability.
  • Integration of Eco-Labels: Governments have the opportunity to support these eco-label initiatives or integrate them with their own labeling systems. This integration can provide consumers with comprehensive and accurate information about the environmental footprints of electronic devices.
  • Improving Data Center Efficiency: Data centers, known for their high carbon footprints, require attention. Collaborating with initiatives like The Green Grid (TGG), which offer tools and expertise to enhance data center energy efficiency, can be instrumental in reducing their environmental impact.


  • India’s digital carbon footprint is a pressing concern that requires immediate attention. Government intervention, industry initiatives, and public awareness are crucial components of the solution. By acknowledging the extent of the issue and framing policies to address it, significant progress can be made in reducing India’s carbon emissions and contributing to global climate goals.

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