The internet has an environmental impact both good and bad. On the good side, when people work from home, they don’t drive to work. Commuting causes more carbon emissions than using the internet.
It can cut down on the use of paper and stuff like CD-ROMs, if anyone remembers them.
But internet usage adds as much carbon to the atmosphere as the airline industry.
Perhaps you have seen it described in headlines with words such as alarming or horrific. Some sites seem to want you to think internet usage is destroying the environment.
I hope I don’t have to strike terror in people to get them to come here and read this post. We need to know about problems before we can solve them. Fomenting fear and worry will not help develop a green internet. Good, objective information can help us develop better habits and take away the incentive for fearmongering.
Public internet has only existed for a little more than 30 years. It has dramatically transformed all aspects of life and society. We work, shop, play, keep informed, and keep in touch in ways unimaginable even 15 or 20 years ago. And we probably don’t give much thought to what makes it work.
Take the concept of the “cloud,” for instance. The cloud doesn’t mean off somewhere in the sky where it has no real substance. Whatever data you store in the cloud sits in huge data centers with lots of super-large servers. Searching likewise requires interacting with the servers. And the data centers give the internet most of its environmental impact.
Not only do the servers themselves suck up a lot of electricity, but they also generate a lot of heat. So server rooms require air conditioning even in the winter in order to prevent damage to them. Data centers have a huge carbon footprint.
Energy usage at data centers
No one keeps official statistics on how much energy data centers use. Estimating it, therefore, requires developing mathematical models.
The most nearly accurate models depend on measuring energy usage at a number of specific installations and estimating total energy usage from those figures. This approach is called “bottom-up.” Gathering the data requires a great deal of time. Not many bottom-up studies have been published. The most authoritative one appeared in 2011.
Extrapolation-based models take bottom-up data and compare it with such indicators as worldwide IP traffic or the amount of money invested in data centers. These studies appear more often. Perhaps some of the panic surrounding the specter of internet pollution comes from an insufficiently critical reading of them.
It appears that, in fact, rapid growth in demand for information services has not led to similarly rapid growth in demand for the energy to provide them.
- Servers and other equipment have become more efficient.
- New software allows more applications to run on a single server.
- The cloud demands very large data centers, which have developed ultra-efficient cooling systems that minimize energy usage.
And yet if energy usage hasn’t grown as fast as internet usage, it continues to grow nonetheless.
In any case, we need to be a little suspicious of any statistics we find. Experts don’t agree on what to include in them. Emissions from manufacturing computer hardware? Tech companies’ energy for their office buildings and staff? Their purchase of carbon offsets?
Another problem is that some data centers run on solar power and others on burning fossil fuels. How can individual consumers even know what data centers they use, let alone how to make choices?
Energy usage of specific internet activities
Google estimates that the average user of its services has a Gmail account, performs 25 searches every day, and watches an hour of YouTube every day. That average usage emits only about 8 grams of carbon.
Looking up information online produces less carbon than searching for the same information in print. (Keep in mind, however, that vast amounts of information are available only in print and not online.)
A single email on average emits more carbon than a single tweet or text message. It emits even more if it has attachments. Or emojis.
A one minute call on a cell phone uses a bit more energy than exchanging texts. A video call accounts for much more. In fact, if it weren’t for video, internet infrastructure could be much smaller and use much less energy.
A five-hour meeting using video conferencing software with participants in different countries can emit between 10 and 475 pounds of carbon. Of course, that figure is dwarfed by the carbon cost of everyone traveling to meet in person.
Watching a half-hour show over the internet leads to about three and a half pounds of carbon emissions. Ten hours of high-quality video uses more data than the text in all English-language Wikipedia articles combined. Yet online videos account for about 80% of all global data flows.
Some recommendations for reducing the environmental impact of internet usage
But multiply your usage by how many other people use the internet! More than half of the population of the world is online at some time or another. If you’re an average internet user, multiply the emissions from your activity by 4.1 billion people!
On crude average, individual internet users are responsible for about 400 grams, or 14 ounces, of carbon dioxide every year. Of course, the amount of time each of us spends online varies. So do the emissions of individual data centers.
According to some estimates, the carbon footprint of the internet and all the gadgets involved in it amounts to about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s comparable to the airline industry.
The internet has many positive environmental impacts. Internet companies constantly make improvements in the efficiency of their operations. Yet individuals’ careless internet usage can neutralize these green effects.
Here are some practices to keep in mind so as a user you can lessen the internet’s environmental impact.
Keep hardware longer. Manufacturing a device, including all the transportation of materials, components, and finished products, makes a significant portion of its lifetime emissions. Keeping a single computer and monitor for six years instead of four years can avoid emitting about 190 kg of carbon.
Use your equipment more efficiently:
- Don’t stay connected to the internet for hours while you’re not using it.
- Use your wi-fi in preference to your phone network.
- Watching TV over the internet on your computer may be a bit easier than watching it on television, but it’s also more energy-intensive.
Send fewer emails, especially fewer that go to multiple recipients. Don’t bother to send emails that just say, “thank you.” Not many people appreciate the time it takes to open and delete them. According to one estimate, if every adult in the UK would send one fewer thank you email, the annual savings in emissions could amount to more than 16 tons!
Be aware that automatic email signatures add to carbon emissions.
Consider writing in text format instead of HTML. It uses about 12 times less energy. Also, SMS text messages generate fewer emissions than sending an email or using private messaging apps.
We all subscribe to email newsletters and other mailing lists that we delete without reading. Unsubscribing from junk email reduces internet traffic and therefore server usage.
Delete old emails and any other unused documents stored in the cloud from time to time. It’s easy to accumulate thousands of emails no longer worth keeping. If everyone reduces demand on server space, it will reduce the need to install new servers.
Don’t print emails. Not only does it use energy, but it also wastes paper and contributes to the volume of the waste stream.
Apart from work, internet streaming services have made watching TV online easier than cable or satellite ever could be. And that’s on top of all the other entertaining videos that do not come from TV.
Since streaming consumes more energy than any other internet activity, limiting streaming is the single most important way to reduce our internet-related carbon footprint. For listening to music, look for audio-only clips—especially when the video has no moving images.
Turn off autoplay on video playlists. It only leads to watching longer than you intend. Look for other ways streaming service providers try to get you addicted. And take steps to reduce their influence.
Walking away from the computer
Remember what used to be worthwhile uses of time before you spent so much time on the internet. Chances are they’re still worthwhile. Read something from print. Declutter a room. Go do something outside.
As with everything else in sustainability, a few people greening their habits won’t make much difference. A few million will make a difference. Tens or hundreds of millions of people can make a huge difference here in the US. Billions of people around the world adopting greener habits? Just think of it!
5 tips to reduce your environmental impact on the internet / Clémant Fournier. You Matter. January 28, 2020
Digital sobriety: how the internet is harming the environment / Florenne Earle Ledger, Earth.org. March 2, 2020
How much energy do data centers really use? / Energy Innovation. March 17, 2020
Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think / Sarah Griffiths, BBC.com. March 5, 2020