Does the Internet Have a Carbon Footprint?
More than we’d like to admit, a lot of things around us (that we don’t necessarily realize) have a carbon footprint—and we use them every day. While the carbon footprint of our smaller actions may seem insignificant, being aware of their existence is a crucial part of reducing our overall carbon emissions.
So, does the internet have a carbon footprint? Yes, IT (information technology) does! The internet is the infrastructure for information technologies like web browsers or e-mails; and each of these services can have an effect on the environment. Here are some of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of some common internet activities:
- 0.2 grams of CO2 per Google search
- 1 gram of CO2 per 10 minutes of streaming Youtube
- 1.2 kilograms of CO2 per year for an average Gmail user
- 1.55 grams of CO2 per 1 minute of scrolling Instagram news feed
*This data does not include the energy consumption on the user’s end (like the energy needed to power the computer).
▴ 0.2 grams of CO2 are emitted per Google search
Your next question might be, how do these activities emit carbon dioxide? A large portion of the internet’s energy usage comprises of two sectors- data centers and networks. Here’s how they both have a carbon footprint of their own:
Data centers are the buildings where IT operations (data processing and storage) are located. It may only take a bit of energy to retrieve data from these facilities, however, the computers within these buildings produce a lot of heat. With over 40,000 search queries per second, companies like Google need to stop their computers from overheating. How is this done? Well, primarily through air conditioning. The energy needed to keep data centers running accounts for about 1% of total global electricity demand—and this demand is rising exponentially—according to the International Energy Agency.
Networks are what allow our devices to access data centers through wiring and receiver infrastructure. In addition to the physical installation of communication feeds, the electrical signals sent by routers and receivers (from data centers to your devices) require a significant amount of energy. One report estimates the total worldwide electricity consumption of communication networks was 354 TWh (terawatt hours) in 2012, which is equivalent to powering over 30,000,000 average American homes for one year.
Alright... you may be feeling overwhelmed at this point (we feel ya’). It’s time for some good news.
A Search Engine That Plants Trees
Ecosia is a search engine that uses its ad revenue to plant trees. When you download the extension and start searching up your favorite topics, a counter lets you know how many trees you’ve planted (around 45 searches to plant one tree).
Too good to be true? If you’re anything like us, we take these claims with a grain of salt. Here is a video examining whether Ecosia is legitimately sustainable (spoiler alert… it is!).
▴ Ecosia will plant one tree for around 45 searches
Renewable Energy Investments
The demand for energy to power the ever-growing data centers and networks can serve as helpful investments for renewable energies. The International Energy Agency also notes how grid operators and governments can work alongside data center operators to shift towards climate targets.
Proximity plays a crucial role; recognizing the carbon footprint of something so seemingly invisible feels impossible. The good news is that it is possible, and there are already ways of reducing the internet’s carbon footprint. If you ever begin to feel overwhelmed with CO2 emissions of, well, anything—remember that solutions exist! We just need to uplift these sustainable alternatives and thoughtfully examine the things we come across every day. So the next time your friends are on their phones while you're cooking in the kitchen, consider how it affects the planet- maybe even have them grab some ingredients and whip up something delicious instead.
Article by Impact Snacks Contributor, Ava Tajally