The high carbon cost of the Internet


5 Reading minutes

One of them is the impact of the internet on the environment and how it also contributes to climate change. Most of us spend hours glued to screens and devices, but few of us consider the greenhouse gas emission toll of this behavior.

The internet has become a completely integrated part of our lives that many of us started taking for granted a long time ago. You’ve probably already answered a handful of emails today, maybe you’ve replied to text messages from friends or scrolled through social media. But

Advances in internet connectivity have brought profound changes to our world. It has been a blessing and a curse for many. We are connected to thousands of people and more than ever able to access information, education, social connections and so much more with the click of a button. However, this connectivity has had a negative impact in allowing many of us to spend too much screen time, dampening the number of face-to-face interactions and connections we make.

As revolutionary and as great as the Internet is for mankind, it also has other hidden costs that we don’t always think about. One of them is the impact of the internet on the environment and how it also contributes to climate change. The idea that sending email saves paper and makes the world a greener place isn’t quite all that people think.

Small costs that add up

you might think “But wait, I keep my phone in battery saving mode and charging can’t take that much power!!”

Well, you’re right… to a certain extent.

The energy cost to charge a phone or a single internet search is actually not that much, maybe a couple of grams of carbon dioxide. But add that up for all the internet searches, text messages, shared photos, and songs you listen to in a day. And in the course of a week or a month? Now multiply that by the 4.1 billion people who currently use the internet worldwide every day.

We haven’t even begun to consider the real drivers of internet power consumption like the servers, power banks, and cooling systems needed to keep everything up and running. The vast majority of the carbon cost of the internet comes from keeping everything running and producing the technology that ultimately ends up in someone’s hands. All told, the Internet accounts for almost 4% of global carbon emissions.

“Energy use in our digital consumption collectively emits the equivalent amount of carbon as the entire aviation industry,” says Vaughan Lindsay, CEO of Climate Impact Partners. This is a baseball figure: the aviation industry it actually creates just over 2% of global carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, by way of comparison, the meat and dairy industry it is responsible for 14.5% of the carbon we put into the atmosphere. Daily use of the internet certainly doesn’t pollute any more than eating meat, but it’s more carbon-intensive than taking an occasional flight. Also, there’s a good chance you’re using the internet to book your flight and while you’re flying, which exacerbates the problem.

Bigger, faster, better

Of course, that’s just the beginning. ISP — internet service providers — they always try to offer their customers the best that technology has to offer. This can mean faster internet through the installation of fiber optic networks or larger data packets which allow users to do more with the internet. New technologies like 5G are also starting to be offered in some areas.

All these new technologies are great for increasing the capacity and capabilities of the Internet, but they consume more energy than ever before. Some studies suggest that in growing countries like China, electricity consumption from the digital sector, including data centers and 5G base stations, is set to increase by almost 300% in the next 15 years.

The rise of cryptocurrencies is another cause for environmental concern. The process of cryptocurrency mining is extremely energy intensive and requires large computers and servers running 24/7. Some cryptocurrency-friendly cities and towns are seeing huge increases in energy consumption. While many advocates see the potential for a green revolution in things like cryptocurrency, there are many gray areas in their assumptions.

Help offset the cost

Recognizing the impact of Internet use can be extremely disappointing for many users. However, it does provide us with another opportunity to reflect on our actions and examine how we can work to reduce our carbon footprint and ultimately make a more positive difference to the environment. Encouraging electric companies and data centers to rely on renewable energy sources can lead to positive changes. You can do this in a variety of ways, from advocating for local government leadership to make policy changes to calling your local power company directly and asking about their renewable energy plans.

Changing the way you use technology can also have a real impact. Small decisions like don’t upgrade to a new phone every year it can make a profound difference in the manufacturing demand for devices. Texting is less energy intensive than tweeting or posting on other social media. Phone calls and emails use less energy than video chats and shared photo albums. Making informed decisions about how we use the internet can be good for both the environment and our mental health.

Plus, you can work to ensure that energy usage within your home is more environmentally friendly. Greener, more energy efficient upgrades for your home they’re a powerful way to start tackling your personal carbon footprint. And there are hundreds of things you can do to jump-start that process, from installing more energy-efficient insulation to updating your windows to buying LED light bulbs.

The internet has always been a double-edged sword. It is full of possibilities and pitfalls. Our lives have been changed forever by the presence of the internet, now we just have to figure out how to live with it.

Reducing your Internet footprint

If you want to reduce internet emissions, consider doing the following:

  • Install solar panels on your home to power your home internet use with clean energy.
  • Turn off your devices when you’re not using them and dim the display — dimming the display to 70% can save nearly 20% of the energy used by a monitor.
  • With cloud storage and email, delete what you don’t need and download the files you need to your device so they don’t take up space in a data center.
  • Reduce streaming and eliminate autoplay, as streaming video contributes 60% of internet traffic.
  • Email reduction: If every adult in the UK sent one fewer email a day, over 16,000 tonnes of carbon would be saved each year.
  • Do not charge your cell phone overnight — every time the charge level drops below 100%, the phone starts drawing power again. Instead, charge it to 100% and then unplug it.

Small daily changes like these can add up to huge carbon savings over the life of your internet use.


Main image courtesy of Pexels.