Does the art world need to clean up its digital carbon footprint?

Artlogic Founder & CEO Peter Chater discusses how the art world can make its online activities more sustainable.
13 minutes to read

 Written by Peter Chater

A version of this article first appeared on Artnet News.


It’s no coincidence that in a year where the art world has been forced to adjust to a new pace of life, many in the art world have started thinking seriously about sustainability. The growth of interest in the Gallery Climate Coalition and other sustainability-focused organisations reflects a growing unease that existing models of art production, exhibition and sales can have significant downsides from a sustainability point of view. Needless to say, where it has been feasible to bring the process of showing and selling art online, galleries have been keen to try. Fuelled by lockdown, the rise of Online Viewing Rooms and experiments to increase collector engagement using enhanced presentation and online story-telling techniques have been extensively explored and will continue to evolve.


So, with all this online activity, coupled with the many meetings on Zoom that most of us now experience daily, does the art world have a digital carbon footprint problem? News articles sometimes paint an alarming picture of our digital energy consumption, and indeed many aspects of our collective digital usage (device addiction, voracious streaming of digital video services, Bitcoin production, etc.) have hugely negative collective environmental consequences. But it’s worth addressing some of the myths and misconceptions.


The GCC Carbon Calculator.


The focus of the Gallery Climate Coalition is to encourage changes in behaviour that will reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. The GCC Carbon Calculator, built by Artlogic with the input of Environmental Consultants Danny Chivers and Harris Kuemmerle, offers art businesses a simple tool to measure aspects of running a typical art gallery that have the biggest environmental impact, thereby informing you of potential steps you could take to reduce emissions. For instance, the calculator makes it easy to see the difference in carbon emissions between First Class, Business and Economy classes when flying, and differences when shipping artworks by air freight and sea freight. These differences are actually huge. So, the biggest change we can make to reduce our carbon footprint will probably relate to flights and shipping. 


In comparison to the above, a typical art gallery’s digital carbon footprint will be tiny. So whilst it might not be a priority area, especially where digital is replacing something that is less sustainable, there are still steps you can take if you know enough about the environmental impact of different technologies.


Google solar field at the St. Ghislain, Belgium data center.  Image courtesy of Google.

Google solar field at the St. Ghislain, Belgium data centre.  Image courtesy of Google. 


Every aspect of online activity consumes energy, however, much of the energy consumed is powered by incredibly intelligent technology that uses hardware and energy extremely efficiently. The key to this is in sharing resources on a massive scale, both in terms of how networks and modern servers work. So, for instance, though data centres are well known to be responsible for vast amounts of global energy consumption (some estimate it at 2%), the consolidation of resources allows cloud applications to run much more efficiently than separate servers, often under-utilised, in server rooms of millions of companies around the world. In cloud computing, when resources are not required, they will typically be powered down and powered up again on demand. In contrast, servers in a traditional server room will probably be humming away whether or not anybody is using them. Switching email and apps to the cloud therefore makes sense from an environmental standpoint (it is estimated that 96% of all businesses now use at least one cloud service), especially as many of the big cloud providers (such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft) are making huge efforts to run an increasing number of their data centres on 100% renewable energy.


A principle of the GCC Carbon Calculator is that you only count your own carbon footprint, not the carbon footprint of everybody in the supply chain. In practice, what this means is that when you send an email or post something on Instagram, you’re not responsible for the energy consumption of all the devices that view it. If in doubt, consider who paid for the energy that is being used. If you paid for it, it’s yours. Similarly, you don’t want to double-count your energy consumption, so don’t penalise yourself for the energy consumption of your digital devices if you’ve already accounted for them in your energy bills. It doesn't matter if you used your phone when out and about - if you charged it at home, or at your desk, then that’s where the energy was consumed.


Having said that, it’s important to understand that much of the computer processing - and hence energy consumption - that generates the pages you view when you are signed into a service, will probably have uniquely been generated for you on a remote server. This is true whether you’re browsing Instagram or Facebook, reading emails, or looking at messaging services such as WhatsApp, Signal or Slack. So while you won’t yourself be paying for that energy consumption, and technically it could be considered somebody else’s carbon footprint, our collective Internet habits will make a difference to overall energy consumption. 


How Much Energy Does It Take to Run My Website?

It’s important to realise (contrary to some sensationalist claims) that the amount of energy used to serve web pages is actually tiny. Efficient web servers are capable of serving hundreds of pages a second and the total energy consumption of a server will have a finite maximum not dissimilar to a fancy laptop. So, if you’re running an art business, you really should not worry about the energy consumption of your website: contrast this with the large number of work and personal devices left on all day (and probably all night) by your team. Considering what an important shop window your website is, especially if you use Online Viewing Rooms, the energy used to run it will be insignificant when compared to bricks and mortar spaces and the transportation of the art that you show and the people you work with. In the case of the busiest websites, also, web pages are often served via intelligent caching mechanisms which both reduce the amount of energy used to create the page (the processing), and (in most cases) keep the cached page geographically local to the user. This is great, in terms of efficient energy consumption which is one of the main goals not only of hardware creators but also those who write the code that make the whole thing work. Inefficient code uses more electricity and - in the case of mobile devices - drains batteries faster.



Search Engines

Green search engines promise sustainability and privacy, but do they deliver on these promises? Putting aside the privacy issue, the answer to this largely comes down to where they source their search data. Ecosia, for instance, actually gets its search data from Bing and Gexsi from Google. So, from an energy usage point of view, actually searching on Ecosia or Gexsi will have no less an impact than using Bing or Google. The difference is that by using these search engines you, participate in schemes that support sustainability. Ecosia, for example, promises to plant a tree for every (approximately) 45 searches you make. But before you decide to go green when googling, check out how they actually work. Avoid obscure search engines that gather their own data as it’s in the gathering of the data (e.g. visiting millions upon millions of web pages) that most of the energy is consumed. A comprehensive search engine that few people use, however laudable its aims, will be immeasurably less energy efficient than a search engine used by millions. A common criticism of major search engines is that they store data on thousands of computers, which is absolutely true. But on the plus side, millions use them. So the net effect is that each user is sharing resources with millions of others.


Which Blockchain Is the Most Environmentally Friendly?

The Blockchain is a clever concept that allows you to store transactions in a decentralised, transparent and tamper-proof way. There are great potential uses of the Blockchain in the art world, all revolving around trust, and some interesting companies are trying to meet the challenges. For instance, many consider it an exciting technology for securely and reliably storing proofs of transactions ranging from authenticity, provenance, to condition reports. Unfortunately, Blockchain technology has been problematic from a sustainability and energy-consumption perspective and urgent attempts have been underway to fix it. Even in its relatively short lifespan, the underlying model has changed significantly, largely to reduce excessive energy consumption which is mind-blowingly awful in early versions and promisingly efficient in more recent ones. So if you’re interested in choosing a blockchain app, ask the developers which blockchain it uses. Here’s a very basic breakdown, but bear in mind that this is a fast-moving technology which changes very rapidly:


  • Bitcoin/Dogecoin - uses older technology (‘Proof of Work’) that requires a vast amount of electricity to mine the underlying cryptocurrency and thus to develop the blockchain. This is run by over a million individuals, oftentimes at the scale of whole data centres built specifically for this purpose, leading to a morally unsupportable outcome whereby Bitcoin mining now uses an estimated 0.1% of the entire global electricity supply: a truly terrible carbon footprint. This blockchain uses more electricity than Argentina.


  • Ethereum/Neo - uses a hybrid model that is attempting to transition to a more efficient way of working (‘Proof of Stake’). Some have already made this transition (Neo), some are working towards this goal (Ethereum). The result is a much-reduced carbon footprint compared to Bitcoin. Even so, in 2018, Ethereum used more electric energy than Iceland, so it is still far from environmentally friendly.


  • Cardano/Polkadot/Algorand - these blockchains are switching to a new model that allows lots of transactions per second and is vastly more efficient and highly scalable. The electricity costs are comparable to using traditional servers in a centralised application.


Though things are improving, the fact remains that no Blockchain model is truly energy efficient, so if you’re in doubt as to whether you need it and are concerned about CO2 emissions, you should proceed with caution. In some ways, the problem of the Blockchain is that it hit the public imagination - and that of app developers and entrepreneurs - long before the technology was fully mature (it definitely still isn’t) and many of these scalability and energy-consumption problems have yet to be ironed out. 


Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT, 21,069 pixels x 21,069 pixels (316,939,910 bytes). Image courtesy the artist and Christie’s.


Are NFTs Unsustainable?

The Blockchain also forms a critical backbone of another fast-evolving trend, Non-Fungible Tokens or NFTs. In the form of ‘crypto collectibles’, NFTs, which are generally traded on specific online platforms, can be considered at once a new form of medium or ‘artwork type’, a rights-management mechanism and digital assets in themselves that revolve around a value model based on verifiable scarcity. NFT offers new and interesting opportunities to artists, especially those who work mainly in the digital space, not least because artist resale rights are baked into the technology. Unique works and limited editions are obviously not new to the art world, and neither are digital artworks (Sedition and others have been selling them for years), however, the combination of ‘digital assets’ and ‘Blockchain’ in NFTs has hit a sweet spot from a sales and marketing point of view, especially among some non-traditional art buyers. 


The prospect of art trading platforms that bypass the existing experience, structures and relationships of the commercial art world is currently exciting some technologically savvy artists and dealers and perhaps alarming others. In fact, the NFT phenomenon is in many ways a spill-over from the music and celebrity ecosphere and the sums of money involved in some of the early forays into NFT ‘crypto collectibles’ sales are truly jaw-dropping. It will be interesting to see whether this early momentum can be sustained. And if you’re wondering if you need to get involved, the answer is, probably not, from a sustainability perspective, as there is a definite problem here: The Guardian estimated that “the sale of 303 editions of Grimes’s Earth used the same electrical power as the average EU resident would in 33 years, and produced 70 tonnes of CO2 emissions”. How ironic that, according to Artnet News, “Some of the proceeds from [Grimes’s] NFT sales will go to Carbon180, an NGO dedicated to reducing carbon emissions”.


Do Video Calls and Email Cost the Earth?

Most of us have moved our meetings online in the past year, and there’s no doubt that online video conferencing consumes significant amounts of bandwidth and energy compared to other digital technology. But if you compare the energy used by these apps to the comparative cost in energy of getting everybody in the same room (given that we all need to get there in the first place), it could be argued that video conferencing is by far the more energy-efficient way of meeting face to face, and if most of us worked from home (as most of us probably do in the current lockdown), the huge amount of carbon emissions saved from transportation will more than offset the relatively small amounts used in video conferencing apps. If you really feel you’d like to make a difference, try audio apps (or old fashioned telephone calls) instead of video conferencing when you don’t need to see the person you’re talking to as they are far more energy-efficient. Video gobbles bandwidth.


Email, Slack, Signal, Whatsapp, Messenger

There is a problem with the reliability of research into the carbon footprint of email. Many published statistics have come from a pre-cloud era where email contributed more to carbon emissions because many companies ran their own email servers. Cloud platforms have made email technology considerably more efficient but, as one of the forms of communication used most frequently to inform collectors and art lovers about artworks and exhibitions, it still represents a significant volume of data being sent between and stored on huge numbers of computers. Artlogic clients, for instance, sent over 57 million email notifications in the past twelve months, and that doesn’t include direct emails sent by gallery employees. There’s no doubt that the design of email technology - and especially that most emails contain a chain of previously sent emails appended to each one which multiplies every time one is sent - was certainly not designed for data efficiency. So, one thing you can do to reduce your carbon impact is to use text-based messaging apps like WhatsApp, Slack, Signal or Messenger, which are highly efficient in comparison.


What Is Something Everyone in My Company Can Do?

There’s a really useful guide on the Gallery Climate Coalition website on steps you can take to cut down your digital carbon footprint. In particular, there are some useful steps you can take to reduce the impact of your or your organisation’s email. But there are also some basic tips about using energy efficiently, perhaps the most important of which is to turn off your devices (and indeed all electrical appliances) when you don’t need them. I know this is really hard to do, especially if you charge your phone at night, which is why I have a bunch of these Energy Saving Timer Switch plugs dotted around the house for devices or heaters. You probably only need to charge your phone for a couple of hours, so get one of these and press the button to 2 hours. If you manage to save 5 hours a night not wasting electricity on charging a device that is already fully charged, that will add up to 1,825 hours a year of electricity saved on a single device. If the whole art world did this, along with other carbon-conscious choices, imagine the impact we could make.


Peter Chater is the Founder and CEO of Artlogic and a founding member of the Gallery Climate Coalition.



Join the Gallery Climate Coalition today.

For more information about how you can reduce your carbon footprint or how to join the GCC, visit the Gallery Climate Coalition website.