The internet. It has revolutionised communication and connection, enabled wider access to knowledge and opinions, and allows for the viewing and sharing of information in many different forms. In the UK alone, 46.6 million people use the internet daily, up from just 16.2 million in 2006. However, despite holding information in seemingly weightless spaces, such as “the cloud”, the internet is far from a carbon neutral and clean infrastructure. What is the internet, how much does it contribute to climate change, and what can we do?
Our use of the internet continues to grow year on year, with no signs of slowing down. More and more aspects of life revolve around us being able to connect to the internet; from catching up on the news, to train tickets, to switching on lights and, since the pandemic, a larger move towards working from home. Our lives are truly intertwined with our connection to the internet (pun intended).
What is the internet, physically? Simply put, it is the infrastructure (i.e. a mass of cables, computers, data centres, routers, servers, satellites and wifi towers) which allows digital information to travel around the world. As of 2021, 59.6% of the World’s population had access to the internet; requiring hundreds of thousands of miles of cables across countries and on sea floors to connect them. Over the last 18 months, our reliance on connecting to the internet has surged; increasing global internet traffic by nearly 40% between just February and April in 2020. As we continue to depend more and more on the internet, whether for work video calls, streaming services or social media, we need to understand the emissions created from our usage.
Anything which requires the internet, requires power; power which is usually generated from burning fossil fuels. Whilst large companies such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Netflix are pledging to be carbon-neutral businesses in the next decade or so, these plans don’t include the emissions we contribute as consumers. For example, the average email has a carbon footprint of 4g CO2e, whilst one with larger attachments is nearer 50g CO2e , but this could be higher now compared to 10 years ago when the original calculations were performed. This may not seem much for one or two emails, but the average worker is estimated (again, 10 years ago) to rack up 135kg of CO2e every year in sent emails – the equivalent of driving 200 miles in an average family car. If that was 10 years ago, given our increased dependence on the internet, this can only mean one thing. According to energy company OVO, if every adult in the UK alone sent one less “thank you” email, we could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year; the equivalent to taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road“. OVO asked the UK in 2019 to “Think Before You Thank”. So, before you send any emails today, “think before you thank”, limit your use of “Reply All”, unsubscribe from mailing lists, and reduce the number of attachments you send by using OneDrive or DropBox links for example.
Does Netflix cost the Earth? The Carbon Trust released updated evidence this year (2021) stating that one hour of video streaming (not live streaming) released approximately 55g CO2e per individual; the equivalent of boiling a normal kettle 3 times. Their analysis also showed that the type of viewing device was responsible for more than 50% of the overall carbon footprint. For example, viewing on a 50-inch TV is roughly 4.5 times more harmful than watching on a laptop, and roughly 90 times that of streaming on a smartphone. Energy efficiency gains are achieved through continued improvements in device display technology. The Carbon Trust highlight that “a strong understanding of the impact and context of video streaming is vital to informing future decision making on the use of video streaming“. Whilst the impact of video streaming has been blighted by misinformation, this doesn’t mean streaming does not have a substantial environmental impact. Videoconferencing has seen a huge increase over the pandemic, and just one hour of videoconferencing can emit between 150-1,000g CO2e. However, by leaving your camera off during a web call, you can reduce this footprint by 96%, according to researchers at Purdue University, Yale University and the MIT.
Other studies from institutions such as MIT, analysed the increased carbon emissions resulting from the move to online during the pandemic; predicting that if remote work continued, the global carbon footprint could grow by 34.3 million tonnes. However, whilst streaming videos and making conference calls does use energy, and thus contribute to climate change, it is a relatively small impact, especially when we consider the previous consumption it replaces. Susanne Baker, the climate, environment and sustainability associate director at non-profit think tank techUK, highlighted that whilst “streaming uses energy…it is replacing consumption models that were much more carbon intensive“. Studies such as that conducted at MIT, did not consider the platforms streaming has replaced. For example, no longer travelling to work, or having a physical DVD, or even a VHS, which would require manufacture, shipping and, again, travel emissions to purchase it.
Here is a great infographic about the carbon footprint of the internet and what daily changes you can make: https://www.climatecare.org/resources/news/infographic-carbon-footprint-internet/
Overall, our Global internet use totals between just 2-3.7% of the World’s carbon emissions at about 1 billion tonnes a year. Daniel Schien, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Bristol, developed a carbon modelling tool used by organisations such as Netflix, the BBC, and the Carbon Trust. Schien said, “I’m not saying we don’t need to care about it, but something as innocent as muesli, with milk, has a higher carbon footprint than one hour streaming.” While our internet use is not nearly as polluting as heating, travel and food production, we do need to be more aware of our internet reliance and consumption. So, whether your favourite show on Netflix is Breaking Bad or Bridgeton, maybe don’t binge an entire series in one sitting? Actively reducing our daily screen time, (and let’s not lie, who’s daily screen time hasn’t increased in the last 18 months?) is a manageable target we could all work towards, alongside aiming to use products with better energy ratings. As Tech Radar points out “until grids are decarbonised, minimising the carbon impact associated with streaming by signing up to a renewable energy tariff is a step in the right direction.”
While You’re Here
If you are looking for more articles about climate change, renewable technologies and your carbon footprint, you should follow the links below:
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