The High Carbon Cost of the Internet

The High Carbon Cost of the Internet

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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 emissions cost of this behavior.

The internet has become an integral part of our lives that many of us have long since begun to take for granted. You’ve probably already answered a handful of emails today, maybe answered text messages from friends or browsed 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 able than ever to access information, education, social connections and more with the click of a button. However, this connectivity has taken its toll by allowing many of us to over indulge in our screen time, which has reduced the number of face-to-face interactions and connections we make.

As revolutionary and awesome as the internet is for humanity, 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 emailing saves paper and makes the world greener isn’t quite what it’s supposed to be.

Small costs that add up

You may be thinking “But wait, I keep my phone in battery saver mode and charging it can’t use that much power!!”

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

The energy cost of charging a phone or just searching the internet is really not that high, maybe a few grams of carbon dioxide. But add that for all the internet searches, text messages, shared photos, and songs you listen to in a day. What about a week or a month? Now multiply that by the 4.1 billion people who currently use the internet across the globe every day.

We haven’t even begun to factor in the real drivers of internet power consumption, such as the servers, power banks, and cooling systems needed to keep everything operational. The vast majority of the internet’s carbon cost comes from maintaining it all and making the technology that eventually ends up in someone’s hands. In total, the Internet accounts for nearly 4% of global carbon emissions.

“The energy consumption in our digital consumption collectively emits the equivalent amount of carbon as the entire airline industry,” says Vaughan Lindsay, CEO of Climate Impact Partners. This is a ballpark figure – the aviation industry actually creates just over 2% of global carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, for comparison, the meat and dairy industry is responsible for 14.5% of the carbon we release into the atmosphere. Using the internet every day certainly doesn’t pollute eating meat, but it does consume more carbon than taking an occasional flight. Plus, chances are you’re using the internet to book your flight and while you’re flying, compounding the problem.

Bigger, faster, better

Of course, this is only the beginning. ISPs – Internet Service Providers – always strive to offer their customers the best in technology. This can mean faster Internet connection through the installation of fiber optic networks or larger data plans that allow users to do more with the Internet. Even new technologies like 5G are starting to be offered in some regions.

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

The rise of cryptography is another cause for environmental concern. The cryptocurrency mining process is extremely energy intensive and requires large computers and servers running 24/7. Some crypto-friendly cities and countries are experiencing a massive increase in energy consumption. Although many proponents 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 discouraging for many users. However, it gives us another opportunity to reflect on our actions and consider how we can work to reduce our carbon footprint and ultimately make a more positive difference to the environment. Encouraging power companies and data centers to switch to renewable energy sources can lead to positive changes. You can do this in a variety of ways, from advocating for local government leaders to make policy changes to directly calling your local power company and asking about their renewable energy plans.

Changing the way you use technology can also have a real impact. Small decisions like not upgrading to a new phone every year can make a big difference in device manufacturing demand. Sending SMS messages consumes less power than tweeting or posting on other social media. Phone calls and emails consume less power than video chats and shared photo albums. Making conscious decisions about how we use the internet can be both good for the environment and good for our mental health.

Plus, you can make your own home’s energy use more environmentally friendly. Greener, more energy-efficient upgrades to your home are a powerful way to start reducing your personal carbon footprint. And there are hundreds of things you can do to start that process, from installing more energy-efficient insulation to upgrading your windows to buying LED bulbs.

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

Reduce your internet footprint

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

  • Install solar panels on your home to power your home internet usage with clean energy.
  • Turn off your devices if you’re not using them and dim your display. Dimming the display to 70% can save almost 20% of the energy used by a monitor.
  • With cloud storage and email, delete what you don’t need and download necessary files to your device so they don’t take up space in a data center.
  • Reduce streaming and remove autoplay, as streaming video contributes 60% of internet traffic.
  • Reduce emails – if every adult in the UK sent one less email a day, it would save over 16,000 tonnes of carbon a year.
  • Don’t charge your cell phone overnight – every time the charge level drops below 100%, the phone will start drawing power again. Instead, charge it to 100% and then unplug it.

Small daily changes like these can lead to huge carbon savings throughout your internet usage.

Main image courtesy of Pexels.

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