Introduction

The internet allows all of us to communicate, consume, and create. It’s long been an indispensable part of our lives, with the UN calling internet access a human right many years ago. Now, with the recent developments in networking and building competition amongst numerous providers, the cost of using the internet isn’t even expensive or inaccessible anymore.

But everything comes with a price, and this too costs us a bit. With every message sent out by an internet user, a little bit of internet CO2 (Carbon dioxide) is emitted, via our data centres, cell phone towers, and other tech infrastructure. It is due to the internet power consumption needed to run your devices and support the wireless network connectivity. Though the energy needed by a single user to send out a single message might be very small, there are 4.66 billion people, i.e, nearly 59% of the total world population, that uses the internet on a daily basis to perform various tasks.

How is it affecting the climate?

With more than half of the world’s population using the internet, imagine the number of servers needed to store the data, and the energy required to run those servers. The greenhouse gases emitted by these huge servers and millions of users everyday, is enormous. So huge, that it is accounting for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions. Mike Hazas, a professor at Lancaster University, thinks these emission rates are equivalent to that of an airline industry, and this might even double by the year 2025.

One study estimated that, 10 years ago, an average internet user in Australia was responsible for an equivalent of 81kg (179lbs) of Internet CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere. Improved energy efficiency and modernised usage of renewable energy has  definitely reduced the emissions, but there is no doubt that people in developed countries are still contributing a lot to the emissions.

These figures may vary from study to study, as the energy consumption of digital technologies is difficult to quantify because too little data available

Causes

What is causing these massive emissions into the atmosphere? From manufacturing devices that are needed to connect to the internet, to the emissions by the servers at the data centers, everything accounts to the internet pollution. Let us look at it in detail. 

  • All the devices such as mobile phones, computers, laptops, that we use to be connected 24/7, require raw materials like copper, cobalt etc., for their manufacture. All these materials are extracted through mining, which accounts to a large number of emissions. Several studies also show that each smartphone requires about 70 kgs of natural resources. To top it, 7 billion smartphones were manufactured just between 2007 and 2017. We can imagine the impact of this on our planet.

  • How much energy do data centers consume? Data centers consume a lot of electricity. Other than powering the servers continuously all day long, they also require power for cooling equipment, to prevent the servers from heating up. All this power is typically generated by burning large amounts of fossil fuels.

  • How much energy does Google consume? An online search emits about 0.2 grams of CO2. By doing just 14 searches a day, you will be responsible for 1 kg CO2 emission in just one year. The biggest search engine on the planet handles more than 2 trillion searches per year.

  • Every email sent out accounts for about 4 to 50 mg grams of CO2, depending on the size and length of the email.

These emissions are posing a threat to our climate and are encouraging the increasing global warming in the world.

How to individually reduce digital carbon footprint?

As an individual, we all perform various searches on the internet, send messages and emails, and whatnot? With the increasing emissions, it is our responsibility to try and reduce the internet pollution i.e, the internet CO2 emissions as much as we can. How to do it?

  • Choosing to send a normal text message instead of sending it over the internet. A text message generates just 0.01g of CO2, while  a message sent on the internet generates 0.2g of CO2.

  • Change the way you send emails. Instead of sending emails along with attachments, which are probably heavy files, try sending out links to the documents. You can also reduce the digital carbon footprint by sending the messages to one recipient, and not multiple recipients.

  • Unsubscribe to mails you no longer wish to receive. Since you would not be interested in receiving information or content from that sender, by simply unsubscribing to them, you can prevent unnecessary waste of energy, reducing the digital carbon footprint.

  • Another simpler way to reduce carbon-printing, is by avoiding “thank you” mails. According to a study, if every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year.

  • Video streaming is responsible for nearly 60% of the world’s internet traffic and generates about 300 tonnes of CO2 every year. This is nearly 1% of the world’s global emissions. The power used by the devices, internet power consumption by the servers and also energy required by the network providers, all together accounts for this enormous number of emissions.

  • You can choose to delete your old accounts that you no longer use, to reduce the data consumed by the servers to maintain the information (and, by extension, reduce the need for more servers). Another way to compensate for the internet CO2 emissions would be, to plant trees. If you have space around your house, you can plant a few trees which could function as tools for Green Web Hosting as well – which is the concept of offsetting the emissions from data centers by using cleaner energy, planting trees etc.

What are companies doing to reduce digital carbon footprint?

 

  • Almost a decade ago, each internet search on Google was responsible for the emission of 0.2g of CO2. As of now, they make use of renewable energy, as well as perform carbon offsetting, to reduce their digital carbon footprint. Similarly, Microsoft, which owns Bing, has also promised to become carbon negative by the year 2030 and almost have zero contribution towards internet pollution.

  • Microsoft’s project Natik, where the data centers have been set-up underwater, has been a great initiative to reduce digital carbon footprint. It acts as a self-sustaining data-center, that could provide the internet for years, without any internet power consumption. The water automatically acts as a coolant, reducing the energy required to prevent the servers from overheating.

  • The Stockholm data park is a perfect example of a data center where no heat energy is wasted. They aim to avail energy from the heat produced by the data centers, which is a major contributor towards climate change. They also aim to be completely fossil fuel free by 2040.

All other major industries can prefer renewable resources over fossil fuels, and can start carbon offsetting, to further reduce their digital carbon footprint. Development in technology should advance our lifestyle, and not degrade the environment through internet pollution. Sustainability is the future. Companies that abide by these regulations have a longer life compared to those that don’t.

 

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