How much CO2 does creating a 1,000-word piece of content cause?

If you want to understand and measure—and ultimately reduce—digital waste then you must start with the digital devices, because it is in the manufacture and disposal of digital devices where 80% or more of the CO2 and other waste occurs. Next, you need to understand the data. How it is created. How it is stored and transferred. How it is accessed. How it is used. How it is archived and deleted.

You take the devices and the data and you add time and weight. How long does it take to create the digital artefact? How much weight? The second key element of time is use. How much is the digital artefact being used and how much time for each use?

I’ve done quite a bit of research over the years trying to understand how long it takes to create particular pieces of content. For example, I found that to create a 1,000-word piece of content, it can take about 20 hours. That includes ideation, drafting, feedback, revision, sign-off, publishing.

Those 20 hours all involve using a digital device, most likely a laptop. I’ve done a lot of research on trying to measure the total CO2 of a smartphone, laptop, etc. Based on my calculations, if you use a laptop for one hour then you are responsible for anywhere from 60 to 120 grams of CO2, depending mainly on how much CO2 was produced during the manufacture of that laptop and the total life of the device.

On a laptop that has a life of three years, the CO2 per hour of use is 107 g. Thus, the CO2 cost for creating this document would be 2.14 kg. If, on the other hand, that laptop has a working life of seven years, then the total CO2 for creating the document drops to 1.3 kg.

However, this is just a small part of the CO2 picture for this content. A 1,000-word piece of content takes about four minutes to read. Let’s say it’s read 10,000 times. That’s 666 hours of use, far more than the 20 hours it took to create the content. Let’s assume all that use occurs on laptops that have a three-year life. We’re talking about 75 kg of CO2 here for use, 97% of the overall total. If, however, the 10,000 reads occurred on smartphones, that 75 kg would drop to 11 kg. Why? One major reason is that while manufacturing a laptop can cause 300 kg of CO2, manufacturing a smartphone causes ‘just’ 60 kg. So, designing a website that works great on mobile is also better for the environment.

I’m working with Kevin Horan, Carlota Calderon Arrechea and Nicola Bonotto to create a CO2 model for digital agency artefacts. Firstly, we’re working to:

  1. Define a set of typical digital artefacts that an agency creates (websites, apps, content, graphics, videos, images).
  2. Establish average times for the creation of these artefacts.

That’s just the beginning, of course. However, if anyone would like to help, it would be greatly appreciated. We’ll be presenting initial results to a broader online session of people interested in what I call Earth Experience Design on March 24. If you’d be interested in attending or helping in any way, please get in touch.

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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