GoEco Explains: The Carbon Footprint of the Internet

If any of us were asked to explain the internet, we’d probably struggle. Although it is integral to daily life, the average person isn’t able to explain how the internet works or even what it is (although we certainly know when the WiFi is down). But in truth, the internet is actually very tangible, brought to us by enormous infrastructure with an equally large impact on the Earth.

Most of us use the internet everyday of our lives, without truly understanding how it works. Could you explain the Cloud to a stranger?

What Makes Up the Internet’s Carbon Footprint?

Internet infrastructure uses a surprising amount of energy, and as our shopping, socialising and working habits move more and more online the associated emissions are rising. 

Let’s start with your devices. When you scroll through your phone, laptop or tablet it’s consuming energy and eventually will need to be charged. Included in your devices emissions are the greenhouse gases emitted during its manufacture, and even transportation emissions as well. In order to look at your friends’ holiday snaps on Instagram, a vast network of cables crisscrossing nations and the ocean floor are needed, with data centres required to store information and servers that power our Google searches. 

Internet streaming is one of the most emission-heavy activities, and streaming services are predicted to make up 87% of consumer traffic in 2022.

It is estimated that nearly 5 billion people use the internet worldwide, and while the individual impact of sending an email is negligible, these things add up. It is also worth noting that more data use means more carbon is emitted, so the lion’s share of emissions come from video streaming, and streaming services are predicted to make up 87% of consumer traffic in 2022. 

How Big is The Internet’s Carbon Footprint?

In crude terms, the internet has roughly the same emissions as all air traffic, which is to say 3.7%. This figure is made up of tiny contributions from many, many sources. To start with, the manufacture of your phone (not to mention the roughly 20 billion other internet connected devices in the world) causes 6.3kg of CO2 and its presale transport emits 1.3kg. 

Just one minute of scrolling on Instagram produces the equivalent of CO2 of 13-metres travelled in a vehicle. Pretty frightening when you really think about how many minutes you spend scrolling each day… The average website produces 1.76 g of CO2 per page view, and an email has an estimated carbon footprint of 4 g. The average yearly CO2 emissions of a single business email address is 135 kg of CO2

Meanwhile, globally data centres – the places that store everything you put on ‘the cloud’ – make up 1% of electricity consumption, which translates into 0.5% of carbon emissions. With the increase in social media use and cloud storage, the number of data centres has exploded with nearly 8000 existing globally.

Enormous data centres are home to unimaginably vast amounts of stored data – all of which consumes energy.

Most data centres are owned by big tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google. Buildings the size of football pitches are crammed with computers that store data in these centres. To understand why this is, it helps to imagine a stereotypical office data cupboard of an 80’s movie, where all the company’s data is stored. Instead of that, imagine all the company data is stored on the Cloud or on Google Drive, and where do you think that information is saved? A data centre. 

Despite the fact that internet traffic has increased 15-fold since 2010, data centre electricity usage has remained stable due to increase in energy efficiency. However, it is predicted that data centre demand for electricity will move to 3.2% by 2030, largely due to an increase in cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is a digital token which can be exchanged for money, and is used to trade online goods and services, sometimes (but not always) on illegal goods. Cryptocurrencies are digitally stored on a blockchain; essentially a piece of sophisticated code which identifies where and what the coin is. The process of verifying and storing blockchain is called ‘mining’ and is so energy intensive that fossil fuel plants in the US are currently being resurrected solely to fuel the data-centres needed for the process.  

Is Anything Being Done to Reduce the Internet’s Carbon Footprint?

It seems like global internet usage is the elephant in the room in terms of climate strategy, with no significant mention of the internet’s carbon emissions in recent discussions and conference events. Indeed, tech is often touted as a solution to our climate woes, rather than a cause of them, which may go some way to explaining the taboo around discussing the issue. 

Use of renewably-generated electricity could vastly reduce the internet’s carbon footprint.

Individual companies are making steps to reduce their impacts however, with Google in particular running a sustainability initiative which sees them match their energy use with renewable purchases. Elsewhere, it is hoped that data centres could prove an unlikely saviour for heating our homes and it is generally believed (as is the logic behind electric cars) that as more of our electricity grid becomes renewable, the electricity use of servers won’t matter so much. 

As for the aforementioned cryptocurrency-related emissions, which are expected to rise dramatically as the technology is more widely used, recent reports suggest this could be reduced by 99% if new methods of bitcoin mining are employed. 

What Can I Do As An Individual?

While we’re waiting for world leaders to get their act together, here are some ways that you can reduce your digital carbon footprint. 

There are things we can all do to minimise our own internet carbon emissions.

The first of these tech tips is to clean out your inbox. Every unread and read email in your inbox is stored in a data centre somewhere. So if your emails currently date back to 2010, you’ll want to do yourself and the planet a favour and delete them. This also applies to old photos, social media accounts and documents; anything online is using energy somewhere to store it. You can also apply this logic to messages that you send; if it’s not necessary, don’t send it! Trust us your colleague will be grateful for one less inbox ping in any case…

Our second tip is to turn off autoplay. As we’ve already said streaming videos uses the most data of any form of internet traffic, so making sure videos don’t automatically play when you enter websites is a great way to prevent unnecessary internet usage. You can turn autoplay off via your phone settings but will need to do it individually for different social media accounts like Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube as well as streaming services like Netflix.

Finally, and this is an obvious one, conserve energy on your devices. Switch your devices off if you’re not using it and don’t charge phones, laptops and tablets for longer than you need to. This requires a certain amount of common sense but we’re sure you understand that (as with everything else) saving power is a good idea when it comes to your devices.

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