The Internet's Invisible Carbon Footprint

It may sound strange, but the internet emits greenhouse gasses. We investigate the environmental impact of streaming, searching, and scrolling

We tend to think of the internet as an airy thing. We talk in terms of clouds and wirelessness, as though the infinite stream of websites, videos, messages, Airbnb listings and “lo-fi chill beats for studying” mixes we consume every second were simply dancing on the breeze; dots of data carried on dandelion seeds. 

Which—of course—they’re not.

The internet is a physical thing. In fact, it’s lots of things. From the laptop on your table, to the massive data centre that stores the information you’re downloading, our daily digital experience is a complex, real-world network of locations, wires and devices. And like everything, they need energy, in this case electricity, in order to run. Around the world, data centres alone use more than 416 TWh per year, which is more than the entire United Kingdom.

Producing electricity often means burning fuel, which also means the internet has a carbon footprint. A big one.

This might come as a surprise. What’s the click of a mouse compared to flying to Spain or buying an avocado that’s been shipped across the Atlantic? While it’s true that loading one website won’t emit very much—maybe 1.7 grams of CO2—the trouble is, some 4.1 billion people use the internet. When we add those clicks up, we have a very big problem. By some estimates, the internet—including the systems that power it and the devices we use to access it—accounts for 2% of all global CO2 emissions. That’s roughly the same as the amount produced by the global aviation industry. 

And it’s getting worse. Research released in 2017 indicated that internet connected devices could account for 3.5% if growth continues at the current rate, consuming a fifth of global electricity by 2025. 

Chris Adams is a director at the Green Web Foundation, where he tracks the carbon footprint of the internet, and is working to build a community around the idea of sustainable technology. Much of the problem, he explains, is down to how fast the tech sector has grown in the last decade. “Computers use electricity, which mostly still comes from burning fossil fuels,” he says, “so you are going to see a greater carbon footprint simply because you have lots of new activity where people default to burning fossil fuels.” 

With this growth, Chris continues, has come a shift in the last decade towards abstract, “cloud-based” services. From Spotify to Dropbox, the way we use the internet now increasingly means storing our data elsewhere—out of sight, out of mind. However, in reality, all of these services rely on “football field-sized” data centres; colossal structures, normally tucked away in out-of-town areas, which consume huge amounts of electricity, and in many cases water for cooling.

The size of the tech industry means that even if companies use the energy they consume efficiently, the amount they demand is still unfathomable. In 2018, Amazon’s carbon footprint was 44.4 million tonnes—not far off Finland’s. “This is a problem when we need to be reducing emissions at a rate of eight or nine per cent per year in order to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming,” Chris adds.

Web design agency Wholegrain Digital was founded in 2007 by husband and wife Tom and Vineeta Greenwood, with an emphasis on sustainability. When they realised how little they knew about the carbon impact of the websites they were building, they began to break the problem down into individual websites, investigating which were more consumptive than others and where they got their energy from. Using this data they were able to create a carbon calculator: a simple tool that figures out how much CO2 a website emits per page view.

You do not need to dig fossil fuels up to enjoy your porn

“I think the average we’ve been recording is 1.7 grams of CO2 per page view,” Tom explains. “If you’ve got a small website where you blog about vegetables and not many people read it, then it’s not worth worrying about. But it scales up really quickly. Most websites have at least a few thousand views a month; popular websites you’re into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views a month. Suddenly you start getting into really big numbers.”

Tom and Vineeta realised that how a website is designed has a significant bearing on the energy it requires. A simple text-based site, for instance, will need a lot less energy than one with 3D rotating logos and a moving background. As a sustainable web designer, Wholegrain put this consideration front and centre, building websites that meet a client’s brief in the most efficient way possible. “That’s the challenge for us as a team: how do we deliver them the most efficient product that still does what they want it to do in terms of user experience and functionality,” Tom continues.

This also helps us evaluate browsing on an individual level. Streaming video, for instance, uses more energy than reading text. It’s worth noting that video streaming from platforms like YouTube, Netflix and others made up more than 60% of global internet traffic around the world in 2019—a number likely to have significantly increased since the world went into lockdown. That isn’t to say you should immediately cancel your Mubi subscription, but as with all habits, it can’t hurt to cut down on unnecessary excess. Small things like sending fewer emails, or cutting down on your internet time in general, can help too.

Really though, this is a question of where the energy we’re using is coming from. 

In practice, Chris explains, there doesn’t need to be any difference between streaming a video or reading a text, as long as the electricity used to power those things comes from a renewable source. “In many cases you do not need to dig fossil fuels up to enjoy your porn,” he continues, “or to make a transaction or have a phone call with your loved ones. It comes down to your choice of power in many cases. That is probably the single biggest lever that we have.”

For individual households this might mean switching to a green energy supplier. Businesses, on the other hand, can choose where they host their website based on whether or not the hoster uses green energy to power its servers. Tools like Wholegrain Digital’s carbon calculator are a useful way to figure out which websites and companies are ahead of the curve, and which still have a way to go. The Green Web Foundation also offers a free web extension that indicates which Google search-results are using green energy.

Lockdown should give us cause to consider what this invisible resource actually is, and how we want it to run

Ultimately the power lies with the giants: the major tech companies and service providers. Many of them have already made huge steps in this direction—Apple has run all its stores, data centres, and offices on renewable energy since 2018—but there is still a lack of transparency. And this isn’t just about fuel burned to run the internet. Chris points out that despite most major tech companies making moves towards renewable energy, many of them are also using their technology to support oil companies. “[This] is in many cases just as important, if not more important, than whether they are running things on green power,” Chris says.

From our lockdown homes we are streaming, video-calling and consuming more than ever. We don’t have the data, yet, to know what this will do to our carbon footprint—a figure that could be offset by dramatic drops in other sectors—but it should give us cause to consider what this invisible resource actually is, and how we want it to run.

Unlike cattle farming or air travel, decarbonising the internet is a remarkably achievable prospect. “When Google and Facebook switched from using primarily fossil fuels to predominantly renewable energy, it wasn’t like we suddenly experienced a change in how we use the internet,” Chris says.

It runs on electricity. The question is where that electricity comes from, and if there’s enough pressure on major industry players to make changes where necessary. Investing in, and switching to, renewable sources is a straightforward fix—and the tech industry has the money to do it. “That’s the nice thing about the internet,” Tom agrees, “it’s a low-hanging fruit really.”