Working Practices

Working Practices #

The research process represents a long path of decision-making that can and should involve assessment of the project or activity’s environmental footprint. This section is intended to help you make informed decisions about the research process as a whole, from using devices to communicating with your team. See also the Decision Trees and Grant Writing sections.

Key Recommendations #

  • The easiest way to reduce your devices’ impact on the enviroment is to use them longer, so use a resource such as iFixit to investigate their longevity and repairability.
  • Many new convenient technologies, such as 5G and videoconferencing, come with increased data traffic, which means more carbon cost.
Read: Bibliography and raw ideas can be found in the Frameapad here.

Using digital devices in general #

Device lifecycles

Hardware has an embodied carbon cost, in addition to whatever electricity it uses. It is best to use devices as long as possible e.g., to repair them when possible. If you purchase a device through your institution, it is advisable to require the longest possible warranty for all newly purchased devices (this is of course also true if you purchase the device for individual use). There has been a growing awareness of the importance of repairability, which is now used as a selling point by companies. Sometimes it is more a greenwashing argument than an actual indicator of repairability (see as an example this Greenpeace assessment of the repairability of some smartphones, laptops and tablets).

There are a few companies that are leading on repairability of device components: Fairphone and Framework are particularly exemplary, but most smartphone, tablet, and computer companies still look for ways to make repairability difficult. See how your device scores on the iFixit repair guides. iFixit also has ‘Teardown’ reports on various devices that are worth consulting. The next-best choice is to buy a second-hand or refurbished device. They are often sold updated with partly new hardware.

For your old devices that are broken beyond repair, you can inquire into the forms of recycling that are possible. Check online for WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, DEEE in French, application in Germany and Europe explained in German here).

In order to have a precise idea of the environmental footprint of a device, you can consult the corresponding Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA, here for an explanation in French) that hardware companies usually provide. LCAs are never fully accurate - some of the information they contain are rough estimates, and the criteria that are communicated are only a handful from a long list. But they remain the best way of assessing the digital footprint of a device or hardware.

Device types

All in all, the fewer devices you purchase and use, the better. The choice of device also plays an important role when it comes to the amount of electricity consumed. For example, for streaming one hour of content via good wifi in HD quality, a laptop uses 9g CO2, a tablet 1.2 g and a smartphone 0.5g (and a television 48g). Source: https://www.iea.org/commentaries/the-carbon-footprint-of-streaming-video-fact-checking-the-headlines. Choices regarding peripheral hardware like mouses and keyboards can also make a difference to energy consumption. While the type of connection (cable vs. bluetooth) is marginal (see this thread on Stackoverflow), some devices also require batteries that need to be replaced or recharged regularly.

Sometimes, you might be able to work faster with a laptop than with a smartphone, or with two monitors rather than one. At other times, the screen size may not influence what you do or how much time you need to do it. Accordingly, it may not be necessary to switch devices or use multiple monitors for a given task; try stepping back and reflecting on the kind of device you really need for the task in hand. For example, you could unplug your second monitor and only plug it in when it helps you work more efficiently (the monitor itself not only has a considerable carbon weight but it also requires much more energy than your laptop).

Of course, every digital device uses electricity; we don’t need to stop using our devices, but should be conscious of our choices and their relative environmental costs.

Using an operating system #

We cannot say that one operating system (like Windows, Linux, MacOS) is better from a carbon footprint point of view than another. There are too many different versions of the systems to compare them in the abstract. But we can check whether there are a lot of elements running in the background, and whether there are a lot of programs that run automatically on start-up, when we don’t need them at that moment.

Towards minimal operating systems

Unikernels provide a light-weight alternative to traditional VMs or containers. Technologies such as MirageOS offer a declarative way to build statically compiled binaries that can run directly over a hypervisor or even over bare metal. This approach allows minimal systems to be built which contain the exact functionality required for the task, even down to being able to specify what parts of a network stack are required. This not only provides opportunity for improving the security of the running system but also can result in energy savings compared to traditional operating systems such as Linux.

Watch: Leaving legacy behind. Reducing carbon footprint of network services with MirageOS unikernels, Hannes Mehnert.

Day-to-day working and data traffic #

New technologies for facilitating data traffic, like 5G, come with a massive growth of data consumption. In terms of impact, the rule of thumb for least energy intensive to most would be: Wired connection > Wifi > 3G > 4G > 5G. A poor internet connection has a better carbon footprint than a strong one.

For example, let’s imagine you use a smartphone for one hour and you stream something in HD quality. With a “low” Wifi connection you might need 4g CO2 in total, with a “high” Wifi connection you might need 10g CO2 in total. Source: https://www.iea.org/commentaries/the-carbon-footprint-of-streaming-video-fact-checking-the-headlines

Best practice around emailing, especially storage, remains a subject of debate, and we invite perspectives and evidence to inform future editions of the toolkit. You can minimise the impact of emails by following a few simple rules. First, avoid integrating an image footer as a signature in your emails. (Consider communicating to your teammates the environmental cost of including images, such an institutional logo, in email signatures). Second, avoid emailing large groups of people unless it is necessary.

Emails are stored as long as they are in your inbox or in subfolders of your inbox, so some savings may be made by clearing out your inbox regularly. You can prioritise emails with attached files (a regular email weighs 4g CO2, and an email with a photo 50g CO2). There is a small energy cost associated with deleting emails; our current understanding is that this is typically outweighed by the benefit, although such trade-offs are one reason the benefits are difficult to estimate.

Sharing files. You might think about using a download link (e.g. provided by Cloud storage) to share documents instead of sending them via e-mail. It is advisable to use online documents especially when: 1) the shared document has a large file size, 2) you have a high number of recipients.

Documents stored in cloud or network drives require traffic for saving files and synchronisation. Network drives usually synchronise file-by-file, which means each change will result in uploading the document completely again. Especially when editing large files, you might consider copying them once to your local drive, editing there and then copying the edited version back when you are finished. Most cloud solutions only require traffic for the modified parts of a file. On the backend, cloud storages usually synchronise automatically on every modification. You can disable the client temporarily or turn on cloud synchronisation only when you need it in order to save energy from additional, superfluous traffic. Generally, saving the document less often will reduce energy consumption if you edit remotely stored documents.

Editing documents online together is a good solution to avoid frequent email traffic, besides the advantage of synchronous editing or synchronisation. However, each time you open an online document, the application needs to be loaded into your browser memory, which creates a lot of traffic. Additionally, it creates traffic by permanently synchronising your edits, which you cannot turn off in an online environment (consider also traffic by tracking, see below: Browsing). It also relies on a permanent internet connection (see above: Data Traffic). Depending on the type of information you need to communicate, it is advisable to opt for a light-weight tool (e.g. EtherPad) for taking collaborative notes.

Browsing on the Internet causes data traffic. As a general rule, more data privacy also means less data traffic. You can track your browsing footprint with the »Carbonalyser« tool developed by the Shift Project to identify traffic-intense websites. A lot of traffic remains invisible to the user: ads, tracking and social media functions are being processed in the background (cf. https://whotracks.me/). It is possible to avoid some of this invisible traffic with browser extensions (AdBlockPlus, Ghostery, uBlockOrigin; for general advice see WikiHow).

Editing documents locally on your machine sometimes consumes unnecessary energy when additional features are running in the background of your program. For example, you can save energy by turning off automatic grammar/spell check (and activate it for final review of a document, for example). If your document is very large and you use cloud storage or a network drive, consider turning off the autosave function, or adjust it to a larger interval in order to reduce synchronisation traffic. Also check for further features in your text editor that may not be required to run all the time – essentially everything that checks the text permanently in the background and needs to go through large vocabularies.

Videoconferencing is less carbon intensive with cameras switched off. This is a complex area, however, since it relates to human sociality and connection. If we try to be too strict about seeing one another’s faces online, could this start to impact our decisions to travel vs. working remotely? In the future, better data on the impact of work-related videoconferencing may help to decide whether this is a carbon-saving measure worth prioritising. For now, we recommend experimenting with a mixture of cameras on and cameras off, especially once working relationships are well-established.

Communication methods #

How to communicate within your team

Communicating within your project team might include sending messages, sharing documents, or videoconferences. While the carbon footprint of the applications and software you will choose is a key element in making this decision, we have included a few additional criteria to help you balance pros and cons of the most frequently used software.

Choosing a videoconference system

We don’t yet have compelling evidence about which videoconferencing software might be the greenest. If you do, please let us know! Wattenbach et al. (2022) find that the energy consumption of Google Meet is slightly higher than Zoom. A 2020 article by Ethical Consumer provides another comparison, based on the sustainability and ethics of the companies rather than technical specifications; Jami and Kopano come out top. We have provided some details on accessibility and privacy as a first step.

SoftwareAccessibilityGDPR compliance
Google MeetProprietaryVery nontransparent
ZoomProprietaryVery nontransparent
BBBGeneral Public Licence; needs to be installed and maintained on an institutional serverTransparent
JitsiApache LicenceMostly transparent
WebexProprietaryRelatively transparent
MS TeamsProprietaryVery nontransparent
Case study: New Interfaces for Musical Interfaces share thoughts on choosing a videoconferencing provider for their hybrid conference.

Choosing a Team-Chat Program

SoftwareAccessibilityFunctionsData privacyCosts
DiscordRuns on all major systemsMessaging, Audio and VideoBad (Data is transmitted unencrypted and the company is allowed to read and resell the data. Data can be transmitted to US-Server)No fees
ElementRuns on all major systems; open-source (GitHub-repo); available in 25 languagesMessaging, Audio and Video (can be unstable)End-to-end encryption; can be hosted on own serverNo fees
SlackRuns on all major systems; Available in 8 languagesMessaging, Audio and VideoCloud-based (can be hacked); end-to-end encryptionBasic version without fees is normally sufficient

If the online platform you are using declares its carbon or electricity efficiencies (and it’s likely that it does not) it will help you understand which factors use electricity when using the web service. The company’s data centre and where in the world it is located, how much data the service transmits to and from your network, how efficiently their (often proprietary) software is conceived, and the energy ratings of the computing device you use are all critical factors – and extremely difficult to find!

Communicating on social media

SoftwareEnvironmental footprint (scrolling 1 minute in gEqCO”)Energy consumption (1 minute, in mAh)Data exchange (scrolling 1 minute in MB)
Twitter0.6010.286.28
Instagram1.058.932.46
Facebook0.7912.3611.15
TikTok2.6315.8196.23

–> The footprint is smaller with fewer videos that play automatically.

Src: https://greenspector.com/en/social-media-2021/

Questions to keep in mind #

When making decisions about day-to-day working practices and communication methods, consider the following questions:

  • How much electricity is needed to run the software?
  • Is any special hardware needed that requires resources?
  • How sustainable is the workflow process (concerning people-power)?
  • Data privacy: Who hosts my data? On what conditions and legal restrictions? Who has access?
  • Open source software: Who can use the software, how accessible is it?
  • Do I need a lot of time to learn something new? Are there communities that can help me?
  • Is the tool accessible for people with disabilities or people that speak different languages?

Publishing your data #

In this area, the key is to take advantage of infrastructure that is used by as many people as possible in order to reduce the carbon footprint per capita. Ad-hoc, tailored solutions are the most resource-intensive and should be avoided where possible.

Making (primary) data available

Humanities projects with a strong digital component usually include the production of primary data in their expected outputs (as detailed in their Data Management Plan), but research in general, even classical humanities research without a strong digital component, combines and/or creates primary resources such as texts, images, video, and audio. The simple fact that your research project deals with a specific combination of sources, connected by the research question you work on, could make it worthwhile to present this data as a publication itself (within the framework of rights associated with the data). This type of publication can be included in your publication list or integrated into a data paper publication (on data papers, see Schöpfel et al., 2019).

Primary data should be hosted in a stable, sustainable environment that will provide access and reuse (reuse is key here in terms of environmental footprint). Research, Teaching and Cultural Heritage Institutions usually provide in-house, state-of-the art solutions (such as nextcloud) on dedicated servers. In some countries (like in France), national infrastructures offer this type for services as well. You can also decide to use trusted repositories like github or zenodo. The key here is to avoid one-shot solutions and maximise mutualisations. Generally, this is the best way to ensure multiple site archiving and hence make sure your data will not disappear in a server crash.

Publishing your results

Following up on the idea that mutualized infrastructure reduces the carbon footprint, the publication on massive preprint servers like ArXiv or HAL presents an excellent ratio in terms of visibility/resource consumptions. Green Open Access is actually green (see here the difference between Green and Gold OA). Gold Open Access comes with a few caveats. First, like for any other website, the fancier the hosting, the more resource-intensive. Pop-ups, banners, pictures, videos on the publisher’s website are loaded every time the paper is accessed and generate a substantial CO2 footprint. What is more, a wide array of well-established publishers harvests researchers’ data (data tracking), which is not only problematic in terms of data privacy, but also in terms of environmental impact that comes from harvesting, storing, and using the tracked data.

Archiving your data #

Sustainable preservation and archiving starts with responsible creation and collection. Put simply, you should not create or collect anything without some consideration of your responsibilities and resources in sustaining it. It is important to take responsibility for actively disposing of data and resources (such as project websites) at the end of a project and/or the retention period set by funding bodies. This responsibility goes beyond any commitments made to research participants to dispose of their data after a given time period.

But disposal won’t always mean immediate deletion. You may choose to hand over responsibility for data and resources to a steward, such as an academic publisher (in the case of journal outputs), a web archive (in the case of websites), a cultural heritage organisation, or another form of repository.

You may wish to open up dialogue with potential stewards around climate. Such dialogue can also help to clarify for all parties what kind of commitment they are making towards the data. How long will they keep it? How will they make it available? What are their own motives and constraints in doing so, and how might these change? You can also explore the more technical aspects of preservation together. For instance, Pendergrass et. al (2019) suggest scheduling high-energy and high-bandwidth activities at off-peak times:

As many of the energy- and bandwidth-intensive tasks of digital preservation are scheduled events, the barriers to shifting to off-peak use are fairly low. For example, instead of running fixity checks or transferring large amounts of data over the network during the day, scheduling these tasks to run overnight takes advantage of times when both electricity and bandwidth demand are low. (Pendergrass et. al 2019)

Data can be stored more sustainably by keeping it offline or “nearline” (meaning it is not available immediately, but can be made available with little or no human intervention). Sustainable preservation means considering offline storage or nearline storage. Kilbride (2021) comments:

[…] every touchpoint of a preservation workflow requires some energy – ingest, fixity check, migration and access for example. So as well as reducing the data volumes we need to ask how many times a file needs to be checked for integrity. We need to question the assumption of large-scale format migration and normalization, and the carbon cost of storing and processing uncompressed files. We need to ask whether instant access – which means spinning disks – is always the best solution. Nearline or offline storage is less good for users but is much healthier for the planet. (Kilbride 2021)

A recent white paper by Fuji is enthusiastic about nearline / offline storage using tape:

Tape supports green datacenter initiatives by storing data offline without consuming energy. Tape systems can also serve as nearline or active-archive tiers of storage. This means that the data is available for productive use but does not consume processing power and requires minimal environmental resources while the data is not being used. (Cooke et al. 2021)

It is not only technical questions that should be considered. Careful curation of collections data can contribute to climate justice awareness and foster debate. Even when climate is not the primary focus, curators can include climate change and climate justice angles. There is widespread recognition that climate transition needs to be more participatory and democratic than is currently the case. (Interpret Europe 2020) point out how collections can become focal points for civic activity, and help to ‘imbue strong principles of democracy, equality, tolerance, nondiscrimination and inclusiveness for every participant.’ Cultural heritage institutions can act as trusted spaces where publics form, get informed, enthused, and empowered. Furthermore, collections can help with mainstreaming climate awareness across diverse domains. Some resources include:

Quantifying the financial costs of sustainable stewardship is difficult, although tools such as Curation Costs ExchangeTotal Cost of Stewardship, and Costing (UK Data Service) can help. Making a financial contribution towards ongoing upkeep is not typically costed within research funding applications, but there is perhaps an argument that it should be. Alternatively, a contribution could be made in terms of working with the steward to reduce the cost to them of ‘taking on’ your material. This may involve your taking on the tasks of re-formatting the material, weeding out duplicate or unimportant material, and/or creating additional documentation to ensure that what remains is reusable by others.

If you are passing on the outputs of your work to a different steward (or repository) from the one who was caring for the data on which that work was based, you could also consider contacting the original steward to let them know, and perhaps spark further conversations and knowledge exchange.

Travel #

Travel is a huge topic. There is plenty of guidance for academics out there, such as the Flying Less in Academia Resource Guide. More resources are linked to below. The carbon cost of flying is notorious, so it is worth putting it in perspective: globally, flying makes a far smaller impact than agriculture and forestry, or heating and lighting buildings, or road transport. But it is not insignificant, and it is an area that is comparatively easy to cut down on.

Moratoriums on non-essential travel can be a good way for an institution to show how serious they are on climate transition. The more boldly they define ’non-essential,’ the more serious they are.

Imagining new spatialities

Climate transition does not have to be about self-denial. At best, it can be about transformative innovation that considers justice, inclusion and wellbeing alongside carbon impact. Reducing the amount we travel, and especially the amount we fly, is an opportunity to reimagine the spatialities of research and education. Who should travel, where, when, for how long, for what purposes? One approach might be to replace all travel with videoconferencing. Would this be a good idea? The Digital Humanities have a role to play in analysing the implications.

In the transition period of the early to mid 2020s, we recommend boldly cutting back on travel, while collaboratively exploring a longer run strategy. Together we should explore questions such as: What kinds of activity should be done in person, and what should be done remotely? For online and hybrid activities, what are the nuances of various digital tools and platforms? What should we make of Meta’s Metaverse, and its relatively power-hungry attempt to create virtual alternatives to physical proximity? Might we invent entirely new formats and ways of working? Conferences, workshops, sandpits, seminars, events, meetings, fieldwork: how might these all be reimagined?

Flying Less

Flying Less in Academia Resource Guide, ed. Ryan Katz-Rosen, is a large curated reading list. There have been some recent breakthroughs in Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), so flying itself may arguably become greener in the future. But it’s worth noting that these biofuels require large amounts of land which could otherwise be allocated to different mitigation or adaptation functions. Some other resources about flying include:

  • Nevins, Joseph. 2014. ‘Academic Jet-Setting in a Time of Climate Destabilization: Ecological Privilege and Professional Geographic Travel’. The Professional Geographer 66, no. 2 (April 3, 2014): 298–310. https://doi.org/10.1080/00330124.2013.784954.
  • Sheller, Mimi. 2018. Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes. London: Verso.
  • Nevins, Joseph, Stephen Allen and Matt Watson 2022. ‘A path to decolonization? Reducing air travel and resource consumption in higher education’. Travel Behaviour and Society, Volume 26, January 2022, pp.231-239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tbs.2021.09.012
  • Glover, Andre, Yolande Strengers, and Tania Lewis. ‘The Unsustainability of Academic Aeromobility in Australian Universities.’ Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy 13, no. 1 (2017): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/15487733.2017.1388620

Remote Working and ‘Rebound Effects’

  • ‘Rebound effects’ include increased demand for energy caused by remote working which can erode (or even outweigh) savings from less commuting. A good overview is Hook, Andrew, Victor Court, Benjamin K. Sovacool, and Steve Sorrell. 2020. ‘A Systematic Review of the Energy and Climate Impacts of Teleworking’. Environmental Research Letters 15 (9): 093003. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab8a84.
  • Here is a big EU report on teleworking: Samek Lodovic, Manuela et al. 2021. The Impact of Teleworking and Digital Work on Workers and Society. Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies, European Parliament, Luxembourg.

Slow Research, Slow Travel, Slow Scholarship, Slow Food

From Research Trips to Research Voyages?

Cutting down travel is obviously important. So too is making sure that when we do travel, it really counts. We might cultivate the ideal of a ‘research tour’ or a ‘research voyage’. This kind of travel would be infrequent, would take the greenest available transport (e.g. rail), and would think about what the researcher can do along the way (not just at the destination).

Digital Humanities researchers can explore the practical challenges of this. For example, if archival visits were done in a more networked and collaborative way, a visiting researcher could conduct proxy research on behalf of others. Might we develop a platform to support this? Such a platform could have longer term ambitions too, helping universities and other institutions to share their resources to enable slower, more sustainable research trips. For example, might institutions form hospitality networks, to offer accommodation at a discount or for free, where travel is by the greenest available method?

Conferences: Smaller, Online, Hybrid, Unconferences, Alternatives

Catering events #

Serve Plant-based Food

Further reading #

Abbey, Heidi N. “The Green Archivist: A Primer for Adopting Affordable, Environmentally Sustainable, and Socially Responsible Archival Management Practices,” Archival Issues.

Brabec, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Chilton. 2015. “Toward an Ecology of Cultural Heritage.” Change Over Time 5 (20): 266–307.

Conti, Meredith. ‘Slow Academic Travel: An Antidote to “Fly Over” Scholarship in the Age of Climate Crisis’, Theatre Topics 31.1 (2021): (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/786251)[https://muse.jhu.edu/article/786251]

Cultural Adaptations. Adapting our Culture toolkit. Includes advice on creating a climate adaptation plan, geared toward cultural institutions.

Digital Preservation Coalition. ‘Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation’.

Kilbride, William. 2021. ‘Digital Preservation and Climate Change: Provocation to and from COP26 - Digital Preservation Coalition’. DCP Online.

Pasek, Anne, Caleb Wellum, and Emily Roehl. ‘Making and Meeting Online: A White Paper on E-Conferences, Workshops, and other Experiments in Low-Carbon Research Exchange’. Petrocultures Research Group. https://www.energyhumanities.ca/news/making-and-meeting-online

Parnitzke, Daniel. ‘Finding Pleasure in Scarcity’. MA Thesis, Design Academy Eindhoven.

Pendergrass, Keith L., Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh, and Laura Alagna. 2019. ‘Toward Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation’. The American Archivist 82 (1): 165–206. https://doi.org/10.17723/0360-9081-82.1.165.

Wattenbach, Leonhard, Basel Aslan, Matteo Maria Fiore, Henley Ding, Roberto Verdecchia, and Ivano Malavolta. 2022. ‘Do You Have the Energy for This Meeting?: An Empirical Study on the Energy Consumption of the Google Meet and Zoom Android Apps’. In Proceedings of the 9th IEEE/ACM International Conference on Mobile Software Engineering and Systems, 6–16. Pittsburgh Pennsylvania: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/3524613.3527812.