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The true environmental cost of the Internet (commentary)

  • Most people do not realize how much the internet requires in energy, physical space, and its carbon footprint.
  • Enrique Ortiz, Senior Program Director at the Andes Amazon Fund, offers up some tips on what we can do, individually, to reduce it.
  • The Spanish version of this piece originally appeared in RPP.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Our society has become digital to a point where, without a smartphone or a computer, our capacity to do anything is severely restricted. A person in a city studies, works, shops, and even finds romantic partners in front of a screen. Similarly, a farmer uses these devices to find better prices, make sales, monitor crops, and make all types of other arrangements that will increase productivity. For many, it is impossible to survive in this world without them.

Along the same lines, and especially these days with climate change affecting our lives, we as a society are also concerned about the environmental impacts of our own actions. We’re worried about our carbon footprint, about wilderness being degraded, about species going extinct, and about the enormous amount of waste related to our consumption. We are all aware of the need to shift to a greener economy that is low in carbon emissions. But, if we want to modify our behaviors, we first need to understand their impacts – both as a society and as individuals. Let’s take a look at one activity, one that occupies even more time of our lives than sleeping: the use of internet.

The internet of all things

Most people do not have the slightest idea about how that “ethereal” world of the internet works. Where all that information that one sends or receives is stored, or what the true cost of keeping and sharing that “cloud” of data really is. All of it is physically stored in huge “data centers” somewhere in the world (from the Artic to deserts), and relies on a gigantic mega infrastructure of interconnections, all of which require an uber quantity of energy to operate. It is estimated that the internet represents more than 1% of the world’s energy consumption, an amount greater than the total consumption of several nations combined. This is predicted to grow in orders of magnitude over the next decade.

While the technology to reduce its energy needs is improving rapidly, and a growing share of this energy comes from renewables, the use of internet today still has a huge carbon footprint. It is estimated that 80% of the energy it relies on comes from fossil fuels. Giant companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple all have committed to using 100% renewable sources of energy and of offsetting their emissions by the end of the decade. But all depends on how it is counted, and what is the source. Even renewables like the energy produced at hydroelectric plants has a big footprint (like in tropical rainforest). And the plans of offsetting emissions are often closer to purchasing guilt-free PR.

A recent paper published in the journal Resource, Conservation and Recycling provides revealing but alarming figures. The authors estimate that the use, transmission, and storage of a gigabyte (GB) of information represents between 28 to 54 grams of emitted carbon to the atmosphere. If we use the global median, 32 grams, it accounts for 97 million tons of carbon per year, an amount larger than that produced by Finland and Sweden together. The impact cannot only be measured in terms of emitted carbon but also in the water needed to produce that energy through hydroelectric power source. Again, using the global median, the amount of water required equal the amount of water it would take to fill one million Olympic size swimming pools per year. Now, if we further evaluate that in terms of the space needed to house the hard-drive equipment in the “data centers”, with all our tik-toks, e-mails, Instagram photos, videos, files, documents, in sum, everything on the web, it adds up to a space that equals the size of New York City, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City combined.

The number of internet users around the world is about 4.6 billion people, i.e. more than half the global population. China alone has over 850 million users. The world’s mobile users (i.e. through phones) number up to 6 billion people and two thirds of those are active in social media. Northern Europe has the highest percentage of people using the internet (97%). But, in terms of actual numbers, Asia ranks first with over 2.5 billion users. Internet use is growing at a rate of 7.6% annually, equaling 900,000 users daily. All that use has to be powered somehow, and in a world where more than 84% of its energy is sourced from fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), it is not a small thing.

Earth’s surface as seen from space at night. Image courtesy of NASA.

What can I do? Should I stop watching nature videos?

With a few changes in our individual use of the internet, we can lower our impact in a significant way. For example, streaming videos at high resolution (HD) requires 7 GB per hour and equals close to releasing almost half kilo of carbon to the atmosphere. Using the service for 4 hours a day over the course of a month would equal close to over 50 kilos released. Lowering the resolution from HD to standard, would reduce these emissions to close to 2.5 kilos, a savings similar to the emissions generated by driving an internal combustion car from Baltimore to Philadelphia (150 km.). R. Obringer et al  state that… “if 70 million streaming subscribers were to lower the video quality of their streaming services, there would be a monthly reduction in 3.5 million t of CO2, the equivalent of eliminating 1.7 million tons of coal, or approximately 6% of the total monthly coal consumption in the US”. Again, the true impact is related to where you are, and where that energy comes from.

If we stop using video in our daily virtual conference calls (in Zoom, for example), we can also have a considerable impact. If one participates in 15 video conferences of one hour each per week, the equivalent carbon footprint equals the emission of about 10 kilos of CO2. If you simply turn off the video, that amount is lowered to 377 grams, a savings equal to what it takes to charge your cell phone for 3 years. And if 100,000 users do that, depending on the source of energy of the country where you are, it may equal 10.7 million liters, the amount of water necessary to produce over 53 tons of tomatoes.

You should not stop watching those cat and whale videos. They fill up our hearts and give us motivation to continue in this struggle for a better world. But in the same way as we are changing our other daily behavior, like rejecting single-use plastics, doing more recycling and composting, or using electric vehicles, we can also include these tips on our list of environmental do-good behaviors. The planet needs it. Meanwhile, please share this article with everyone in your social media …via the internet.

A Spanish version of this piece was published at RPP.

Header image: Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in Baker, California. Photo credit: NASA

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