Sunday, October 1, 2023

How the Internet Affects the Climate and What You Can Do About It




The internet has become an essential part of our lives, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. We use it for work, education, entertainment, communication, and more. But have you ever wondered how much energy and emissions are associated with our online activities?

According to some estimates, the internet and the devices that support it account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally. And these emissions are predicted to double by 2025.


The carbon footprint of our internet usage depends on several factors, such as:
  • The type and number of devices we use
  • The source and efficiency of electricity that powers them
  • The amount and quality of data we transmit and store
  • The location and design of data centers that process and store our data
Each of these factors has a different impact on the environment. For example, an hour of streaming in Europe has a carbon footprint equivalent to boiling an electric kettle three times or driving just 250 meters. But switching to a lower-quality video stream makes very little difference.

Similarly, data centers that store massive amounts of data from our online activities account for about 1% of global electricity use. But despite a 60% surge in demand for data center services, the energy required to power them is estimated to stay flat until 2022. This is because of improvements in energy efficiency, economies of scale, and the use of renewable energy sources.

So, what can we do to reduce our digital carbon footprint and help the climate? Here are some tips:
  • Use wifi instead of an internet connection via 4G, which has twenty times more impact in terms of energy use.
  • Use an ecological search engine such as [Ecosia], which plants trees with its profits.
  • Reduce your e-waste by repairing, reusing, or recycling your electronic devices instead of discarding them.
  • Power down your devices when not in use or set them to enter sleep mode while taking a break.
  • Adjust your monitor brightness to save up to 20% of the energy it uses.
  • Disable unnecessary plug-ins and delete unwanted emails that take up space and energy.
  • Don’t overuse video for online communication or entertainment. Opt for audio calls or podcasts instead.
  • Switch to hosting powered by renewables if you have a website or a blog.
  • Support companies that are committed to reducing their environmental impact and using clean energy sources.
  • Educate yourself and others about the environmental costs and benefits of digital technologies.
To give you more insights into how the internet affects the climate, let me explain some of the factors in more detail.

Devices

The devices we use to access the internet, such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc., consume electricity and emit carbon dioxide. The amount of electricity and emissions depends on the type and number of devices we use, how often we use them, how long we keep them, and how we dispose of them.

According to a study by [The Shift Project], a French think tank, smartphones are responsible for 11% of the global digital carbon footprint. This is because smartphones require a lot of resources to manufacture, such as rare metals, plastics, glass, etc., which have high environmental impacts. Moreover, smartphones have a short lifespan (about two years on average) and are often replaced by newer models. This leads to a lot of e-waste that is either landfilled or incinerated, releasing more greenhouse gases.

To reduce the carbon footprint of our devices, we can:
  • Choose devices that have a longer lifespan and are easier to repair or upgrade
  • Buy refurbished or second-hand devices instead of new ones
  • Use devices until they are no longer functional or compatible
  • Recycle or donate old devices instead of throwing them away
  • Use eco-friendly cases and accessories for our devices

Electricity

The electricity that powers our devices and the internet infrastructure comes from different sources, such as coal, gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, etc. The source and efficiency of electricity affect the carbon footprint of our internet usage. For example, using electricity from coal generates more emissions than using electricity from wind.

According to a report by [IEA], an intergovernmental organization that provides information on energy issues, electricity generation accounts for about 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions. And about 38% of global electricity is still generated from coal, which is one of the most polluting sources.

To reduce the carbon footprint of our electricity consumption, we can:
  • Choose green energy providers that use renewable sources
  • Use energy-efficient devices and appliances
  • Turn off or unplug devices when not in use
  • Use smart power strips that automatically cut off power to devices that are in standby mode
  • Use renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines to generate our own electricity

Data

The data we transmit and store on the internet, such as emails, photos, videos, documents, etc., also have a carbon footprint. The amount of data we use and the quality of data we choose affect the energy and emissions required to process and store them.

According to a study by [Huawei], a Chinese multinational technology company, data transmission and storage account for about 28% of the global digital carbon footprint. This is because data transmission and storage require a lot of network equipment and servers that consume electricity and emit heat. Moreover, the demand for data is increasing rapidly, especially for high-quality video streaming, which requires more bandwidth and storage space.

To reduce the carbon footprint of our data usage, we can:
  • Use less data-intensive applications and services
  • Compress or delete unnecessary or duplicate files
  • Choose lower-quality or smaller-sized formats for images and videos
  • Use cloud storage services that use renewable energy sources
  • Use offline modes or download files instead of streaming them online

Data Centers

Data centers are facilities that house network equipment and servers that process and store our data. Data centers consume a lot of electricity and emit a lot of heat. The location and design of data centers affect the energy efficiency and cooling requirements of these facilities.

According to a report by [Greenpeace], an international environmental organization, data centers account for about 17% of the global digital carbon footprint. This is because data centers require a lot of cooling systems to prevent overheating, which consumes more electricity and water. Moreover, data centers are often located in places where electricity is cheap but dirty, such as China, India, or the US.

To reduce the carbon footprint of data centers, we can:
  • Choose cloud service providers that use renewable energy sources
  • Use edge computing or distributed computing to reduce the distance between data sources and data centers
  • Use artificial intelligence or machine learning to optimize data center operations and performance
  • Use liquid cooling or natural cooling systems to reduce the need for air conditioning
  • Use waste heat recovery or cogeneration systems to reuse the heat generated by data centers
The internet has many positive effects on our society, such as connecting people, spreading information, and fostering innovation. But it also has a significant impact on the climate that we need to be aware of and act upon. By following these simple steps, we can make our internet usage more sustainable and responsible.