Is The Internet Causing A Climate Crisis?

What happens when you do one simple Google search on the internet about Global Warming? You get millions of results explaining and documenting the impact of human activities which are adding to the global temperatures. You get to know how humans have polluted the Earth so drastically that it might soon become an uninhabitable planet itself. It concerns you, doesn’t it?

But did you realize that even when you searched for information about Global Warming on the internet, you unknowingly added to it? Yes, a simple Google search accounts for 0.2 – 7 grams of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to driving a car for 53 feet! And that’s just the beginning of the story.

Who powers the Internet?

Currently, there are over  2.5 Billion people connected to the internet. While it has made life easy in terms of communication, running businesses, developing newer technologies and whatnot, it has also left carbon footprints whose estimates exceed those of air travel. The internet consumes and emits large amounts of energy and we need to understand how the consumption gets triggered and the impact it can have on the planet.

The amount of energy internet consumes could be seen under two broad categories. First, the manufacturing and shipping of hardware which enables the world to connect vis-a-vis computers, smartphones, and servers. The manufacturing and maintenance (like keeping your phone charged) consume a lot of energy and its usage emits some more.

The second aspect of the internet involves powering and cooling of the hardware systems which requires drawing power from the local grids, equivalent to using power at your homes, only a thousand times more. The air conditioners regulating the temperature of these servers and data centres generate CFCs into the environment. This power, in its turn, is predominantly produced through coal, natural gas, and petroleum, adding to the climate crisis.

Now let’s look at some statistics to understand how even the simplest of internet usage could add to the emissions. A one MB email during its life cycle emits 20 grams of CO2, roughly equivalent to a 60 W bulb being lit for 20 minutes. Sending just 20 emails a day by every user for a user could emit as much CO2 as a car travelling a 1000 kilometres.

An email which is stored on the servers, a junk mail, a spam mail, even a newsletter which goes unread adds to the pollution as they all require being stored in servers which require power for their upkeep. Simply browsing the internet for a year, an average user could have a carbon footprint equivalent to travelling 1,400 kilometres by car.

The server cost is not just in maintaining the server, but the air conditioning costs of keeping them cool.

The Information and Communication Technology delivering video, voice, and other services emit about 830 million tons of CO2 annually. This is almost 2 per cent of global CO2 emissions. By 2020, Data Centres would be responsible for 23 per cent, Networks would be responsible for 24%, and end-user devices would be responsible for 53% of the emissions through the use of the internet itself.

So who is consuming all this power and which are the major sources contributing to them? The US is the largest global consumer of data centre power followed closely by Japan, Germany, France, and the U.K. The streaming video and audio services are, in fact, the biggest drivers of this explosive growth in data dissemination and consumption. Interestingly, Netflix and YouTube combined are responsible for more than 50% of the internet traffic at peak hours in N. America.

“Bitcoin mining is another activity which eats up huge amounts of energy. Our laptops run on 150 kva load. A Bitcoin miner uses ten times that electricity, as the computers solve complex mathematical problems to mine bitcoins. So in countries where electricity is cheap, people have created huge farms running thousands of these computers. Canada, Greenland, US, and China have a lot of these farms, creating a lot of pollution,” says Anshu Goel, CEO of Alphalogic Techsys Ltd, a Pune-based bespoke software consulting firm which believes in providing solutions that are energy efficient.

How can we fight internet pollution?

Companies around the globe have, however, awaken to the dangers of internet pollution and are rapidly adopting technologies to reduce their carbon footprints. Apple, for example, powers its Nevada data centres with geothermal and solar energy. Facebook’s Iowa centre runs on 100% wind power. Google has already committed to converting all its data centres to run on renewable energy.

Cloud-based operations are also poised to make a great impact and reduce wastage to a large extent. “Going on cloud is like becoming part of a bigger problem. Take a small space in a big server which is centrally controlled and regulated. They are secure, and are run by big players like Google, Amazon, Oracle, Microsoft,” Anshu says.

A small business with, say, 100 users could cut its carbon footprint and energy costs by almost 85% by moving to the cloud. A shift to cloud operations could see a 38% reduction in energy usage in the world’s data centres. Further, cloud-operations would directly result in a decrease in the commercial real estate necessary to house them and reduce the emissions from these properties.

Thee fact is that your internet usage is driving up the global temperatures and your every email is adding to it. But there are simple things which you can do to do your part in protecting the environment as well. Limit your emails, especially the ‘reply all’. Unsubscribe from the newsletters you are no longer interested in. Store your data with green cloud providers. There are many cloud service providers who run completely on renewable energy sources, switch to their services. These simple steps could actually have a great impact if done consciously and in bulk.

The idea and the solution are quite simple: Use what you need and when you need it, everything else would only result in waste. The internet as any other polluting source is human-generated and can also be curbed by human efforts. All we need to do is pay attention and actively become a part of the solution.

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About the Author

Vedant Goel
Vedant Goel