The carbon footprint of the internet: our online addiction is destroying the planet

by Nati
My Happy Footprint - Carbon footprint of the internet

An estimated 4.57 billion people are active Internet users.

I am one of them, otherwise this blog post wouldn’t be here.

You are one of them, otherwise you would not be reading this blog post.

Did you ever wonder about the impact your Google Searches, YouTube streaming, Netflix binge-watching, social media scrolling and continuous flow of e-mails has on our planet?

In other words, do you know how big the carbon footprint of the internet is?

The answer might surprise you.

We see the internet as something that has to do with ‘dematerialization’. For everything that is digital, we feel like we don’t need that many resources. So, we are actually helping the planet, right?

Well, that might be true in some way, as we no longer need the same amount of paper as before (hooray for the trees). But there’s another side to the story…

My Happy Footprint - how big is the carbon footprint of the internet

The internet is leaving a larger ecological footprint than we think – here’s why

In order to understand the carbon footprint of the internet, we need to look at both the production of everything needed to be connected to the world wide web as well as the energy necessary to power all our online activities.

First, let’s dive into the production of the devices that we use to be connected almost 24/7.

Smartphones, tablets, laptops, no matter the device you use, they all require raw materials, including copper, cobalt, gold and silver. 

These raw materials are extracted through mining, a process that comes with a high price tag.

There are social cost. The men, women and children that work in the mines are exposed to unsafe, often even deadly, working conditions.

And then there’s the environmental impact. Studies show that each smartphone requires 70 kilos of natural resources. Once you know that between 2007 and 2017, an estimated 7 billion smartphones were produced it isn’t that hard to imagine the – negative – impact of the electronics industry on our planet.

Planned obsolescence, forcing you to change your device every 2 to 3 years, makes it even worse. E-waste (which includes your discarded phones) is now the fastest growing waste stream on the planet. The world produces 50 million tonnes e-waste a year, weighing more than all of the commercial airliners ever made. Only 20% of this e-waste is formally recycled.

Besides the production of the device that you use to access the world wide web, the hours that you scroll, click, swipe and share make a significant impact. Here’s how that works.

How your TikTok creation impacts the ocean

Every time you send an e-mail, share your latest TikTok creation or click on “Next episode” for your favorite Netflix series, you put a data center to work. Data centers are giant buildings packed top to bottom with servers full of the websites, databases, online applications and files that make our ever increasing hunger for online activity possible.

My Happy Footprint - Carbon footprint - Data Center

All these servers need to be produced. And what about the network needed to transport all that data? The thousands of kilometers of internet cables at the bottom of the ocean. The network antennas. The optic fibers.

The production part of the equation might be the most tangible. After all, you are holding a device into your hand. Even right now, unless someone is reading this blog post to you. But although less visible, the second force behind the carbon footprint of the internet, isn’t less powerful.

How big is the impact of your binge-watching Sundays on the planet?

Data centers use electricity.

A lot.

Not only to power the servers 24 hours a day. Data server centers require power for the air conditioning to keep the servers from overheating. All this electricity is generated from different sources, including a large amount of fossil fuels.

In fact, if the internet were a country, it would be the sixth largest consumer of electricity on the planet, right behind Russia, Japan, China India and the US.

What’s the biggest driver of data demand?

Video streaming.

Video streaming demanded 63% of global internet traffic in 2015, and is projected to reach 80% this year. Netflix accounts for one-third of that traffic alone. However, the company scores a sad 17% on the “Click Clean Scorecard” of Greenpeace. That’s a a lot of unsustainable sources to bring Zac Efron, Floki or detective Ambrose into your living room.

I bet that’s not what you expected, right? I know I didn’t.

So what about the remaining part of the internet activities? It’s difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the complete carbon footprint of the internet.

That would mean analyzing every tweet, like, share, WhatsApp message, activities of “Internet-of-Things” devices, just to start. That’s not the purpose of this blog post.

It’s about creating awareness of the impact our digital behavior has. So I dove into the data of two everyday activities for many of us: Google searches and sending e-mails.

What is the carbon footprint of a Google Search?

An online search emits about 0.2 grams of CO2. You could perform 5.000 searches – almost 14 searches per day for an entire year – before you hit 1 kilo of CO2. That’s the equivalent of driving 4,46 kilometers in a (non-electric) car, according to calculations of MilieuCentraal.

Although the biggest search engine on the planet does not disclose how many searches it handles each year, estimations show it’s more than 2 trillion.

In CO2 terms, a year of Google Searches equals 1.785.720.000 kilometers driven in a (non-electric) car.  

What is the carbon footprint of an e-mail?

Each e-mail emits between 4 and 50 grams of CO2. It depends on how many people receive the e-mail, the length of the e-mail and the size of the attachment. Let’s take 10 grams as an average.

We send 269 billion e-mails send each DAY. That comes down to a whopping 2,69 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide. Or a little over 12 billion kilometers driven in a (non-electric) car. A day!

If you made it up to this part of the blog, it must be pretty clear that our online behavior is putting pressure on our planet. But don’t panic and unplug all your devices.

Not yet.

6 ways to lower the carbon footprint of the internet

By reading this article, you emitted an estimated 24 grams of CO2…

Now, you could click away from this article and take a walk outside in order to save the planet. 

I am not saying you shouldn’t.

But you could spend another 5 minutes to find out 6 easy ways that help you to reduce your internet carbon footprint. Trust me, the positive impact will be bigger than the additional 24 grams of CO2 you would put into the atmosphere. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?

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2 comments

Ash 17/08/2018 - 10:38

Wow very interesting read!

Reply
James @ Green Website 10/10/2020 - 03:25

This is a really great summary Nati. Although we are seeing increased awareness about recycling of old technology there is still a huge problem with all the extraction of the raw materials for making devices like smartphones. Making people more conscious of web usage is something we are trying to get through!

Reply

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