Understanding the Internet’s Carbon Footprint

The environmental impact of the internet and our online activities often seem innocent due to their perceived intangibility reinforced through abstract terminology like “The Cloud”.

Yet, they represent a significant contributor to our individual carbon footprints and global warming as they rely on a vast network of energy-intensive physical infrastructure which are largely powered by non-renewable, greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels.

These include an extensive network of undersea cables, servers in data centres, switches and routers, just to name a few.

Although estimations vary, a recent report by French think tank The Shift Project, has revealed that digital production and use of digital technologies represent 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly double that of the aviation industry’s fuel emissions, which stands at 2% of global emissions.

Additionally, its energy consumption is increasing by around 8% a year.

Even the powering of data centres alone account for around 1% of total global electricity demand and 0.3% of overall carbon emissions, which represents more than the national energy consumption of some countries.

However, the services the internet provides continue to become actively embedded and further entrenched within our everyday way of life as the Internet-of-Everything (IoE) paradigm continues.

The amount of data each person creates is growing exponentially and there is an increase of 35% in data generated every year, globally.

This is also notwithstanding the implications of the global pandemic which has only intensified our reliance on such services and accelerated the digitization of most industries, forcing many to work remotely and the need for high-speed internet connections, requiring more data centre capacity. Between 2010 and 2019 and in a time-span of less than 10 years, the number of internet users has doubled from 2 to 4 billion and global internet penetration is still only at about 50%.

Energy forecast of ICT, Source: Andrae 2015, cited in Nature 2018
Energy forecast of ICT, Source: Andrae 2015, cited in Nature 2018

The Complexities of Quantifying the Internet’s Carbon Footprint

Confusion can often arise when identifying the relationship between climate change and the internet due to varying and often conflicting estimations of digital energy consumption which exists due to a number of factors.

Firstly, estimates naturally vary depending on what you are calculating: Information Technology (IT), Communication Technology (CT) and Information Communication Technology (ICT) are all different, albeit similar, but often overlapping groupings.

They can also vary based on research assumptions and how researchers attempt to define and quantify these phenomena, including system boundaries which determine the parts of the whole system that are actually being studied. For instance, if data centres and network infrastructure or indeed end user devices such as smartphones or laptops are included in calculations.

Alternatively, some argue that the energy required to manufacture the necessary hardware of servers, cables and wireless network infrastructure should also form part of the equation.

Even when these facts are considered, answers may also differ based on local efficiencies of the internet, with the existing infrastructure impacting the distance and time taken for signals to travel.

For example, Google’s decade old estimate of 0.3Wh of energy for a typical Google search likely masked the fact that some searches can be more energy intensive than others.

These are just a few of the challenges that make quantifying the net environmental impacts of the internet extremely difficult.

Nevertheless, whilst estimates on energy, carbon or overall environmental footprints vary, the internet undoubtedly emits enough to require significant attention if we are to stay below the IPCC’s maximum 1.5°c of total permitted warming.

Energy Efficiency Improvements: A Potential Solution?

Efforts to increase efficiency within the tech industry have been substantial as it is continually within the interests of companies to remain competitive with rivals. As such, they are always experimenting with innovative ways to make their services more efficient.

Recently, smart error-correcting data chip circuits have been designed by The Chalmers researchers for fibre optic communication systems which have been shown to make them 10 times less energy consumptive.

Despite data traffic roughly tripling since 2015 and data centre “workloads” more than doubling, the shift to “hyperscale” data centres has also facilitated the ability to keep electricity demand of data centres relatively flat since 2015.

These developments correspond with “Koomey’s Law” which describes the historical trend whereby energy efficiency of computing has doubled roughly every 1.6 years since the 1940s, and every 2.7 years since 2000. Similar trends have also been seen in data transmission networks.

Yet, whilst hyperscale data centres have helped mitigate data centre electricity demand growth, this does not take into account regional implications and the effect they are having on local grids. This can often increase the difficulties of energy transitioning to greener energies, particularly in smaller countries.

What’s more, critics argue energy-efficiency gains are not enough on their own to offset the drivers for greater energy consumption with some believing these easy gains could end within a decade.

Similarly, greater energy efficiency does not necessitate greater energy saving. In fact, greater efficiency can often lead to greater consumption evidenced by the economic phenomenon whereby increases in energy efficiency often lead to “rebound effects” in demand for energy services, which may partly or fully counteract potential energy savings.

Energy efficiency experts such as Dr Harry Saunders, have highlighted that there is an over-reliance on such energy efficiency measures in order to achieve global climate targets.

For instance, emerging technologies such as “cloud gaming”, which enable the streaming of high-end video games through the internet onto mainstream devices such as laptops and tablets, are likely to demonstrate this phenomenon in the future.

This technology is popular because users no longer require expensive gaming PCs to run games and in theory is more energy efficient, as cloud gaming servers are often more efficient than standard home consoles.

Gaming is naturally energy intensive anyway as it requires lots of data centre capacity as well as network capacity. Unlike YouTube or Google which uses largely one or the other, cloud gaming has to process data and render video in real-time as well as responding to user inputs.

So the aim of making gaming more accessible to the population it is therefore likely to increase energy usage as it seeks to create more gamers. Conservative estimates for example, whereby 30% of gamers transition to cloud gaming by 2030, are projected to cause an increase in carbonmissions by 29.9%.

Additionally, by ultimately offshoring energy footprints by running software through remote servers, there are concerns the tangible environmental impacts will become increasingly out of sight and out of mind for many consumers.

Are the Recent Climate Pledges from Big Tech Encouraging?

Tech companies now represent some of the key leaders in corporate procurement of renewable energy and have made some seemingly bold claims when it comes to climate change.

In 2020, Amazon overtook Google to become the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy and pledged to be net zero by 2040, with both Apple and Facebook aiming to be net-zero by 2030.

Google has pledged to permanently run all of their data centres on carbon-free electricity by 2030 and Microsoft has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030.

Whilst such pledges are perceived as a welcome gesture in the fight against climate change, it is important to critically evaluate them.

Many of these announcements only came after a staged climate walkout of workers in September from Amazon, Google and Microsoft, illustrating how employee activism was the integral component catalysing such environmental developments.

What’s more, Amazon employees have since been threatened for speaking out against their climate plan and the day after the climate walkout was announced, the company updated their communications policies restricting the ability for staff to voice their concerns to the press or via social media regarding publicly available information.

Furthermore, pledges that claim to meet 100% of demand through renewable sources do not necessarily guarantee their use continuously and consistently, and can be met through direct procurement of renewable energy or offsetting policies which may significantly exaggerate carbon reductions.

Often data centres will still be powered by greenhouse gas emitting fuels, but the company has bought enough renewable energy that year to offset 100% of their energy consumption.

These climate commitments also do not address Big Tech’s growing business ties with the oil and gas industry, a detail highlighted by a recent Greenpeace report.

The report stresses how contracts between tech firms and oil and gas companies are found in each phase of the oil and gas production chain and are “significantly undermining the climate commitments that Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have made”.

Whilst Google has since pledged to stop developing AI support for this sector,others such as Amazon and Microsoft have either refused to do so or deepened their ties with the oil sector.

Big Tech Sustainability plans unpacked, Source: Greenpeace, 2020.
Big Tech Sustainability plans unpacked, Source: Greenpeace, 2020

The Vulnerability of the Internet to the Effects of Climate Change; a Vicious Cycle?

Ironically, the internet is also vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels, storm surges, heatwaves and wildfires.

One localised study argued that by 2033 over 4,000 miles of buried fibre optic cable and 1,100 traffic nodes will be surrounded by water in densely populated coastal regions of the United States, with the potential to significantly disrupt global communications.

This is an area that tech website Gizmodo has suggested is not currently receiving sufficient attention from tech companies, at least in the United States.

Moreover, in the United States, the lack of net neutrality protections regulating tech companies also has the potential to worsen emergency response to such natural disasters.

During the 2018 Mendocino Complex fire, California’s largest wildfire in history at the time, tech giant Verizon throttled the fire department’s “unlimited” internet connection to 1/200th of the typical speed.

This severely impeded emergency response provisions and resulted in Verizon attempting to upsell to a more costly internet package. The throttling of data to first responders is not an isolated incident either and critics have argued such instances prove Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot be trusted to police themselves.

Mendocino Complex Fires at Municipal Airport 2018, Source: Bob Dass, via Wikicommons.
Mendocino Complex Fires at Municipal Airport 2018, Source: Bob Dass, via Wikicommons

Reducing our Digital Carbon Footprint: What Can Be Done?

If pledges to “operate responsibly” and build “a sustainable future” are to be believed, Big Tech must further recognise their part in the climate crisis.

Additionally, if such climate pledges are to be meaningful and align with the moral ideals they profess, they must stop propping up the oil and gas industry through their services and offer greater transparency in their climate approach. Otherwise, they represent yet another attempt by large companies to greenwash and shrug real accountability.

Individuals must also critically engage with climate pledges and continue to hold tech companies to higher standards that are better equipped to meet the planet’s needs.

As stressed by Greenpeace, the digital technology sector should be afforded the same regulation as other sectors in relation to energy and climatic needs.

To do this, we must maintain consumer pressure to ensure transformative change and that climate resilience is prioritised, but also political pressure to address the regulatory gap that exists at the governmental level.

At the intermediate level, businesses should also reflect on things like website emissions, particularly those with high visitor levels. A public resource to help you understand and quantify the carbon emissions of your website as a business and how you can mitigate them can be found here .

At the smaller scale, unsubscribing from unnecessary commercial or junk email chains and deleting unnecessary or unwanted photos, videos and files saved in cloud storage are all things we as individuals can do to reduce our energy and consequently carbon footprint.

Founded by sustainability activists Venetia and Max La Manna, Offline48 is also a trending movement for people that wish to disconnect from their digital devices in order to reconnect with themselves and their surroundings.

Not only does this help limit our carbon footprint somewhat, through removing endless social media scrolling habits it is also thought to improve our mental wellbeing and mitigate the negative psychological impacts of excessive mobile device usage. However, it is important to note that whilst these small-scale activities may be marginally beneficial, they do not fully address the issue and should not be viewed as a lasting or all-encompassing solution.

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