Study shows shocking impact of 'photo-hoarding' on carbon footprint?

n_photos Found via an IET press release. They're trying to convince you that the CO2 costs of storing pix online are substantial, and larger than a couple of other randomly selected things: flying, for example. About 3.7%, because flying isn't that bad really. I'm not sure I trust their numbers - this is nominally the press release for a study, but doesn't link to the study, and the one ref to the actual costs of data storage is actually a ref to vehicule emissions. But never mind; take their numbers as read. So what is the solution?

With Brits admitting to taking an average of five pictures for everyone they post online – and 10% taking ten or more – a life lived through social media with endless selfies, scenic snaps, and ‘food porn’ needs to be managed. Producing a carbon footprint over a lifetime equivalent to driving from Lands’ End to John O’Groats, happy snappers are today being urged to simply ditch the dupes to slash their carbon footprint.

But... this is unrealistic. Anyone taking large numbers of photos knows: deleting duplicates is hard work, and most people simply won't do it1. Urging people to "ditch the dupes" is classic eensy-teensy-steps stuff, which is more of a distraction from real solutions than any useful solution in itself.

The solution, obvs, is twofold: improvements in cloud infrastructure to use less power; and decarbonising the cloud via renewable energy2. Since it already runs on electricity, this is "merely" a matter of finding more renewable power; unlike rather harder problems like aircraft.


1. I make this worse because my pix go onto Flickr - via autouploader - and also onto Google Pix, because I have a Pixel phone.

2. Google, to take a random example, alreaady does this. There's an ever-so-slightly weaselly "matched 100 percent of its global electricity use with purchases of renewable energy" in there, but I think it is good enough.


Epistemic Minor Leagues - ACX


David Appell said...

I'm not convinced without more numbers. There are huge datacenters in Oregon for Google, Facebook, etc that exist in part for when someone calls up a photo or file from the cloud from 5 years ago.

My iCloud Drive is about 9 GB. iCloud Photos about 4 GB. Yeah, they're nice to have as backups. But if a tenth of the 4 M people in Oregon have the same, that's 5,200 TB - basically 5,200 laptops. Just for Oregon, a relatively small state in population.

Phil said...

Start with a disk.


14 TB drive, a bit less than what is needed for you. Power used while idle, most of the time, ranges from 1.1 Watts to 5.5 Watts.

5.5 Watts 24 hour a day, 365 days a year is 48 kWh. Not insignificant, equal to driving an electric car about 140 miles or so.

The disks keep getting larger and more power efficient.

That's not the whole story of course, as computers, networking and such is needed between you and the disk.

Computers and networking also keep getting more capable and more power efficient.

Tom said...

Y'all are forgetting that electronics (storage included) is by and large substitution for physically tangible objects.

Sure, storing photos electronically involves energy consumption (minute amounts, really). But printing them involves comparatively massive amounts.

Disc storage is a huge net win for the environment. As is email. As is most everything electronic.

If you don't want people to take pictures, be explicit about what you are calling for.

William M. Connolley said...

But printing things out costs money; whereas electronic storage is free, to the user. Which is why we all (since we all now have phones) take ten pix of the one view now, whereas we (but only the relatively few that owned cameras) used to take one pic of every tenth view. So I think (suspect, guess) the overall balance probably tilts towards more energy use.

David Appell said...

This says (Figure 2) global data centers used about 200 TWh of electricity in 2018, obviously for a lot more than photographs:


By contrast, the US uses about 4,000 TWh annually.

William M. Connolley said...

David, thanks for the numbers. But hard to judge, when they're used for so much else too.

Tom said...

Well, just two things--analogue photographers do take multiple pictures of the same person/object, print them out and discard them.

Second, the data centers that hold our digital photographs also hold one or two other things besides. I imagine the whole of digital photography is an asterisk in data center activity. Compression reduces storage and inactivity leaves processing at a minimum.

That leaves data centers free for the entertaining processing of Bitcoins, I guess...