Electronic Carbon Footprint
Digital technology is firmly entrenched in our lives and here to stay. We often focus on how transportation increases carbon emissions, or how sourcing food from global producers increases pollution and greenhouse gases. However, what if the devices that make our lives easier, allow us to work from home and have a plethora of goods delivered straight to our doors are responsible for more carbon emissions than all the flights that take off globally in an normal year? Our electronic carbon footprints may be as invisible as the WiFi needed to read this article, but its tangible impacts are very real.
If you’ve taken a flight in recent years, you may have been offered the option to purchase credits and offset the carbon emissions generated by that journey, making your carbon footprint net zero. What does this mean exactly? A carbon footprint can be defined as, “the total amount of greenhouse gases produced to directly and indirectly support human activity, usually expressed in equivalent tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).” In practical terms, this translates to how much energy it takes to power your home; create the clothes you wear; grow, transport and cook the food you eat; travel near and far, and each and every activity we do on a daily basis. Using our phones and the Internet may appear to come with no leads attached, but the carbon requirements of electronics is enormous.
Climatecare.org estimates that the energy needed to run the Internet exceeds that of global air travel (in 2018 the global aviation industry accounted for 2.5% of CO2 emissions; the Internet accounted for 3.7%). How is this possible? First, the Internet relies on infrastructures that must be manufactured and shipped. Think about all the millions of servers, desktop and laptop computers there are to run the service before even getting to the personal equipment in a home. All of this hardware must be created in factories, and then transported around the world. Additionally, once the equipment is running, it must be powered and cooled, drawing more energy from our electricity grids. Furthermore, there is rarely one device in a household. Think of all the multiple laptops, tablets and smart phones in your own space, and multiply that by the billions of households globally that can afford these devices. Each one needs its connection to a network, and likely has to be charged on a daily basis. The power and carbon emissions requirements snowball into one another.
Our interactions once connected to the Internet also generate their own footprints. The searches we perform dozens of times a day rely on the aforementioned servers. Google estimates that one search on its engine “accounts for 0.2 to 7 grams of C02,” the equivalent to “boiling a kettle for tea, or driving a car 52 feet.” Chances are you boil the kettle fewer times a day than you pick up your phone for a Google search. Sending one email has the estimated carbon footprint of 4 grams of CO2, and sending large attachments could balloon that up to 50 grams. Watching videos online emits an estimated 0.2 grams of CO2 per second – that’s a whopping 10.8 kilograms for a 90-minute movie! Streaming music is no better. In 2016, services such as Spotify and Apple Music, “emitted around 200 to 350 million kilograms of greenhouse gas.” There are also the thousands of products that comprise the “Internet of Things,” such as online doorbells, security systems, thermostats, toys, smart watches, appliances, gaming consoles and much more. With half of the world’s population estimated to be online as of 2019, that is roughly 3.8 billion people emailing, searching, streaming, sharing, liking, chatting, plugging in and powering up every single day.
The UK is ranked in the top 5 of global data users, joined by the USA (#1 obviously), Japan, Germany and France. With the realization that every action involving the Internet adds to our carbon footprints, it can be daunting to know what to do. Our reliance on the networks and connectivity is only growing. Much of the emissions output stems from the servers and data centers that power the Internet and on which the average citizen has little control. There is positive news: many major Internet corporations, ie. Google, Facebook, Apple, are already powering their data centers with renewable energy and pledge to move to 100% renewables in the coming decade. Many countries are finding ways to put the heat generated by gigantic servers to better use. Swimming pools, laundrettes and greenhouses are appearing throughout Europe that are powered solely by data center heat. Sweden is relying on its cool climate to be an ideal location for server centers, and funneling “waste heat” into its municipal heating grids. Using this method, Stockholm aims to be fossil fuel free by 2040.
Here are ideas for more practical applications to our daily lives:
Our global connectivity is a saving grace in many ways, yet its impact on carbon emissions is often overshadowed by more traditional polluters. Awareness of your electronic carbon footprint is as essential as knowing where your food was grown, reducing plastic waste and curbing fossil fuel use. The Internet is firmly rooted in our habits and we can each manage how we harness it to tread more lightly in our electronic lives.