May 16, 2017    6 minute read

Smartphone Photos: the Environmental Cost of Selfies

Rising Demands    May 16, 2017    6 minute read

Smartphone Photos: the Environmental Cost of Selfies

According to an excellent infographic put together in 2014, 73% of the world’s population has a mobile phone. Among mobile phones, there were 4.4bn camera phones in use and 1.14bn smartphones. By now these figures have certainly increased. In 2013, smartphone sales overtook regular mobile phone sales, mobile phone subscriptions grew 14.5%, and smartphone subscriptions grew 44.6% year-on-year. This has contributed to the staggering rise in smartphone photos taken around the world.

Exponential Growth

Over 90% of people have only taken pictures on a camera phone. In 1826, one picture was taken; in 2000, 85bn; in 2013, 3.5trn; and the projection for 2022 is 7trn. The infographic is worth reading in its entirety for the breadth of the information about the exponential growth of smartphones and the decline in traditional camera sales

Increasingly, while the quality of smartphone pictures still does not match that of a high-end DSLR, the vast majority of pictures are seen on the smartphone on which they are taken, or to which they are sent. They look great on those screens. This reflects how the way that people interact with and appreciate photography is rapidly changing.

The Changing Nature of Photography

The rise in digital photography has had a huge impact. In 1990, 100% of photographs taken were analogue (57 bn). This did not change substantially in the following ten years, and in 2000 99% of the 86bn photos that were taken were analogue. By 2011, however, analogue photos represent a touch over 1% of the 380bn photos taken. Over 300m photos are posted to Facebook each day. Facebook’s library is over 10,000 times the size of the Library of Congress and uses approximately seven petabytes of storage every month.

According to Analytics Magazine, in 2012, 80% of all corporate and public unstructured data was made up of images and video. The growth of data – and video is the largest percentage of that data – delivers enormous numbers through exponential growth in a way that is neatly illustrated by this infographic.

Cause for Concern?

The volume of data generated, the cost of storage, alongside the real estate and environmental implications of that storage begs the question of whether this data is useful and improves lives in any way at all.

Pictures on Snapchat evaporate after viewing. Facebook pictures – other than profile pictures – disappear through the bottom of the screen within minutes. Instagram is only slightly more durable in this regard. Accordingly, society’s relationship with data and pictures is becoming increasingly transient.

An image of dinner shared amongst followers is stale within minutes and barely visited after first appearing on social media. It lives on, however, in the cloud and in the data farm in which it is archived.

Such images can be searched for, but for the most part, pictures posted to Facebook, for instance, are even more ephemeral than the books that sit on bookshelves once they have been read. There are few reasons for keeping books and photos that will never again be read or viewed, but it is in human nature to not want to part with them.

The Selfie Market

Furthermore, whereas once the objects of travel pictures were tourist sites themselves, the main tourist fascination is now the tourist. The selfie market is projected to grow by approximately 26.5% per annum through to 2020. The image of tourists being led around like obedient dogs at the end of their selfie leashes is not edifying and cannot be worth the storage it costs.

The idea, however, of picture-based information discovery while travelling the world, seems much more valuable. Image recognition software – identifying the tree, fruit, building in a picture just snapped on a mobile phone – is an enormously complex part of data analysis and matching science. However, Forbes Magazine predicted in January that the data analytics business would grow from its current level of $130bn to over $200bn by 2020. Google, Facebook, Baidu, Amazon, IBM and Intel are all investing heavily in this area.

The Burden on Energy Supplies

Facebook is only part of the data equation. According to Ciena, there are over 7,500 data centres worldwide, and data centre construction is projected to grow 21% per year through to 2018. Data centres are estimated to consume up to 3% of all global electricity production. However, despite being responsible for substantial amounts of storage and data centre locations, big name users such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft represent less than 1% of data centres across the globe.

The power consumption of data centres is projected to increase to roughly 140bn kilowatt-hours annually by 2020, the equivalent annual output of 50 power plants. This will cost American businesses $13bn annually in electricity bills and emit nearly 100m metric tonnes of carbon pollution per year. Accordingly, data centres are a huge driver of the global demand for energy.

Google illustrates the difficulty of matching energy-hungry data centres with sustainable energy sources. As Google states, data centres run 24/7 and most renewable energy sources do not. Consequently, Google and others have opted to support the addition of renewable energy sources to the grid indirectly.

In the US, renewable energy benefits from substantial tax credits from the government. This means that the government will give a credit of 30% of the cost of the capital cost of constructing a wind or solar farm against the developer’s tax bill. The prerequisite of this is that the construction sponsor has sufficient tax payments to be able to utilise the credit.

However, many renewable energy developers are not in that position. Google helps by agreeing to purchase the power produced under a long-term power purchase agreement (PPA). PPAs are very helpful to renewable energy developers in finding investors to provide the capital to construct the wind or solar farm. If Google can source clean energy in one location, even if not co-located with its data centre, the overall effect on the electricity grid is an undeniably positive one.

What Does the Future Hold?

A quick look at the amount of space taken up on the typical iPhone will likely show that photos and videos are the biggest tenants. The global data storage picture is similar, and with estimates that 90% of all the data in existence was created in the last two years, it is clear that pictures and videos are eating the planet.

The more interesting the image, the more it is shared. The more it is shared, the more storage it occupies. The more storage there is, the greater the burden on the environment. The exponential increase in data storage is evidently a substantial, though often overlooked, reason for developing renewable energy supplies.



Get articles like this straight to your inbox each morning with our Breakfast Briefing. Sign up by clicking here!

Log in with your details


Forgot your details?

Create Account

Send this to a friend