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Eco tip: Declutter the cloud

Electronic cloud storage uses at least as much energy as the airline industry, says authors of the 52 Weeks of Climate Action Challenge
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This regular column on tips to live more sustainably comes from the 52 Weeks Climate Action Challenge. The challenge was created by Laurel Hood and Sherri Jackson. Hood is a retired Collingwood Collegiate Institute teacher, and Jackson is a writer and speaker, and ran as the Green Party’s candidate for the area in the last federal election. Both are climate activists. 


Newsflash: your data is dirty. That fluffy cloud up there isn’t a real thing, where your photos from 2010 are floating peacefully in a rainbow fog. I know. You never really considered it before, but, it’s a problem, because everyone is dumping their files into the atmosphere, literally, and we don’t give it a second thought. Ta-da! Here we are to shed a little light on the subject!

Let’s do an experiment. Take a look at the number of songs in the playlists you’ve got. Then consider the number of streaming services you subscribe to, and the number of hours you spend watching or listening to them. Social media accounts? They’re rife with data too. Now check your email and Google Drive. How many files? Then, check that special place where pictures go to die – how many photos and videos do you have stored?

I’m guessing a whole ton. Gigabytes upon gigabytes of saved data. Now, imagine what it would look like if we went back 30 years, and all those things were actually in your house in real life. How many rooms of mail and documents would you have? How many storage containers of files would you need? How many CDs, DVDs, newspapers, magazines, books and photo albums? I’m guessing a whole lot more than you could cram into your space.

When we had to physically handle our own paperwork, and develop expensive film into photos, we were more discriminating. After all, who needs a whole room dedicated to junk mail? But, here in the shiny new digital age, we have gotten lazy when it comes to cleaning house. After all, it’s just an unopened email or two (or 1,000), and how bad could a bunch of photos you’ll never look at really be? Well, surprisingly, pretty bad. Let’s investigate.

Just like a houseful of documents, all those electronic files have to be stored somewhere. They’re not just floating around all innocent, even though that’s what we’ve been encouraged to believe. All that storage occurs on servers somewhere, and those servers need energy to run. Data centres that house all this storage must run 24/7, and require massive amounts of energy to cool them. 

It’s estimated that the amount of energy required to service our digital storage is equal or greater to the amount of energy the airline industry uses. It’s a lot. It’s about two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In the US, streaming music dumps between 25,000 to 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Netflix and other streaming services are a big part of the problem too, and as televisions get bigger, resolution gets sharper, and length of shows gets longer, even more energy is required to service them. It’s estimated that by 2025, the technology sector will consume 25 per cent of the world’s total electricity, and world annual traffic will increase by 60 per cent, to 175 Zettabytes (175 trillion gigabytes), with cloud computing as the driving force. That's astronomical.

Now, let’s talk about photo storage. It’s oh so easy to take 20 pictures when one would do. Then, upload them, and forget about them. I confess that I have lost complete control of my photo files, and now have absolutely no idea where anything is. I have multiple copies in multiple folders, and I regularly spend hours trying to make sense of it only to retreat and fight another day. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Email is yet another dirty secret, where hundreds of files clutter up servers and suck up energy unnecessarily. So you get the picture. We’re virtually storing way more stuff than we need to, and while cloud computing has become a norm of society, there are things that can be done to mitigate the damage.

Cloud storage is dominated by many big players - Google, Amazon, Apple. To their credit, some are working toward net-zero emissions. Unfortunately, the big sound bytes about net-zero haven’t actually played out for many of them. Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 due to using renewables and carbon offsets. Amazon, unfortunately one of the biggest players, is still only offsetting 50 per cent of its massive emissions despite its pledge, and still heavily using coal and other fossil fuels. If we look beyond North America, places that do not have access to renewables are powering and cooling their servers with fossil fuels.

So while we’re waiting on the world to change, let’s roll up our sleeves. Here are some ways to help you tackle that virtual hoarding.

Challenge 38: Clean your virtual house.

Here are some tips to tackle your virtual clutter.

  • Stop putting so much stuff there! Before you upload something, ask, do you really need it? Decide which files you’d actually keep if you had to print them off. Then, only upload those few. No one needs that many selfies. Instead, get a good quality backup drive, and save sensitive and important documents there. Keep them on your hard drive too. You should have at least two copies of important stuff, and it can’t hurt to have hard copies too. And, I’m sorry to say, information isn’t safer in the cloud than it is in a steel cabinet in your home. There are thousands of people trying to hack your data online. It’s unlikely a thief would grab your hard drive instead of your jewelry.
  • Find out what’s sucking up space. Just like cleaning a closet, the big stuff should go first. Take a look at your file list, and if you can live without it, delete it. Same goes for apps you don’t use. 
  • Clean out your email. Purge your spam, junk mail and anything you don’t need. Unsubscribe from things you never read, or places that send constant promotions. Get rid of old accounts completely. Delete really old emails, and all attachments. If you need them, you should download them or print them.
  • Stop automatically syncing everything. Does everything need to be stored on Google Drive? Keep a folder for important backups, and only sync that to your cloud storage.
  • Tackle photo and videos. Get a good quality photo finder, and dedicate an afternoon to deleting duplicates. Keep only photos you genuinely love (think “would I keep this if I had to print it?”), and ditch the rest. Save them on a backup drive dedicated to photos. Or, go old school and create scrapbooks, or print photobooks. If you do save photos online, you can change your upload preferences to “high quality”, which maintains the resolution nicely, but doesn’t take up as much space.
  • Consolidate your accounts. Do you need five different google accounts, really? If you don’t, get rid of some. Those of us who have hoarding in our blood may bristle at this idea. Grit your teeth and press delete.
  • Purge social media: You can go to settings, and download an archive of your data before you delete it online.

For more tips and step by step instructions for different platforms, check out this Popular Science article and this Wired article.

All this said, it is virtually impossible to completely scrub something completely from the cloud, and virtually impossible to keep it private and totally protected there. So, use it, but with discretion, and clean up your digital act. It will take you some time this week to tackle it, but, if you make a date to tidy your data regularly, you’ll be doing the planet a favour. Sorry folks, it's been a long one, but we missed you!