What’s the impact of the internet? Well, you’re currently contributing to the carbon footprint of the internet.
Yep, everything that we do leaves an environmental footprint.
Preparing our morning coffee, commuting to the office, watching our favorite TV show, and yes, even browsing the internet.
The internet has become a staple in our lives. We use it for everything, from scheduling our daily meetings to mapping the route to a friend’s house or organizing our finances. As such a predominant feature of our existence, we need to be aware of the impact of the internet on the planet. Surprisingly, internet usage results in a relatively significant carbon footprint.
It’s true that a single internet search needs only a tiny bit of energy, but when 5.3 billion people use the internet every day, that fragment of energy adds up. As more people gain access to the internet and we become more dependent on it, that number will only go up.
So, what exactly is the carbon footprint of the internet, and is there a way to minimize internet carbon emissions? Let’s explore.
Does using the internet leave a carbon footprint?
The short answer? Yes, the internet absolutely leaves a carbon footprint.
This is due to the energy needed for networks, data centers, and manufacturing devices. Because the internet is used at a mass scale, it results in a fairly significant carbon footprint. In 2021, the internet’s carbon emissions were around 3.7% of global emissions, about equal to the aviation industry. They are expected to double by 2025.
It’s easy to believe that a quick Google search or shooting off a small message wouldn’t make much of a difference when it comes to climate change. After all, there are billionaires commuting in private jets. Surely staying at home and sending emails is the least of our worries when it comes to GHG emissions.
But the truth is there is a carbon footprint of an internet search.
There’s also a carbon footprint of an email.
The impact of the internet equals the enormous number of daily internet users. The carbon footprint of an email (with no attachments) is 0.3g. Almost 350 billion emails have been sent this year. That’s over 100,000 tons of carbon emissions from emails alone. Those who are concerned about climate change need to be aware of their internet carbon emissions.
The impact of the Internet: carbon footprint components
The impact of the internet comes from energy use in a few different areas. Data centers, network equipment, and devices all take energy to manufacture, run, and dispose of at the end of their life cycle, thus contributing to internet carbon emissions. By understanding the energy use in these areas, we can determine ways to minimize our impact and improve our carbon footprint.
In the United States alone, data centers account for 2% of electricity use. This number is expected to grow. Switching to clean energy sources can help minimize the carbon footprint of the internet. In fact, there are now green hosting providers that use clean energy in order to run their data centers. By using such hosts, web owners and ecommerce companies can reduce their carbon footprint.
But, energy use isn’t the only way that data centers impact the environment. Large amounts of water are needed to cool systems and generate electricity. This study found that one-fifth of data centers in the U.S. use water from stressed water sources. If website owners are truly concerned about their environmental footprint, they need to consider all areas where an impact is made.
Equipment and devices also increase the carbon footprint of the internet. Besides the impact associated with manufacturing, e-waste is a massive issue. In 2019 alone, more than 50 million tons of e-waste (waste associated with electronics) were produced. According to a study by UCI, by 2030, e-waste sources will account for around 852 million metric tons of CO2.
Online activities and their carbon footprints
To gain an understanding of internet carbon emissions, let’s take a look at different online activities and the carbon footprints associated with them.
According to the International Energy Agency, streaming something online for one-hour results in about 36g of carbon. While this is low, especially compared to carbon emissions associated with taking the bus for an hour (150g) or driving a car for a mile (710g), it can add up. A study by Lancaster University found that many people fall asleep with streaming services, like YouTube or Netflix, running in the background. Similarly, many enjoy media multitasking, which means that they’ll stream a show in the background while doing another activity.
These actions are superfluous and can greatly increase the carbon footprint of the internet. By turning off the TV before bed or choosing to focus on one activity at a time, you can minimize your impact.
Online gaming is another area that sees GHG emissions. In the United States, gaming accounts for around 24 metric tons per year of carbon emissions. While, in the scheme of things, it isn’t all that much, eco-friendly gamers should be aware of their impact. They can minimize this by investing in energy-efficient devices and pushing for clean data centers.
Cryptocurrency carries perhaps the largest carbon footprint of online endeavors. According to The Atlantic, bitcoin mining accounted for 62 megatons of CO2 emissions, which is about the same as the entire country of Serbia.
Let’s talk about the carbon footprint of an internet search. The carbon footprint of an internet search is worth about 0.2g of emissions, according to Google. When Google processes about 6 billion searches per day, this results in about 1300 tons of carbon emissions per day and nearly 500,000 tons per year.
As you can see, although each individual action online doesn’t amount to that much carbon emissions, it does add up. When you account for all of your actions online, it likely constitutes a big portion of your carbon footprint.
What is the carbon footprint of social media?
If you’re addicted to social media, we have some good news: it seems to be the least impactful part of the internet. In fact, Facebook claims that a single user’s annual carbon footprint amounts to about 299g. However, you can limit this carbon output even further by disallowing updates, stopping apps from running in the background, and attempting to quit mindless scrolling.
How can we reduce our carbon footprint on the Internet?
There are a few ways that individuals and ecommerce companies alike can minimize their carbon footprint associated with the impact of the internet. Even though the internet is a necessary aspect of our daily lives, these small changes can result in huge impacts without hindering your needs.
Firstly, those who own a website should consider opting for green web hosts and use clean energy for their data centers. Support data centers committed to net zero targets, that can showcase solid sustainability strategies in order to minimize their impacts as much as possible. Individuals can also do their part by supporting websites and ecommerce companies that use such data centers.
As you work to reduce your carbon output through clean energy, your company can also invest in energy-efficient network equipment. Not only will this minimize your carbon footprint, but it can also reduce your energy bill, so it’s a win-win!
Individuals can reduce their carbon footprint by investing in devices that promise a long lifecycle. Planned obsolescence contributes greatly to e-waste, as devices become unusable long before their equipment should fail. Although legislation from the EU has banned such practices, you should still be aware and make sure that you invest in high-quality devices. You can do more to extend the life of your electronics by strategically charging the batteries, avoiding extreme temperatures, and regularly cleaning them.
How to reduce the carbon footprint of an internet search? You should also consciously consume online media. Try to turn off your streaming services when you go to bed. Refrain from multi-tasking and running too many services at once. Unplug your devices when they aren’t charging. Change your settings so that your computer goes to sleep sooner. If everyone makes small changes in their daily lives, it can result in a massive impact for GHG emissions.
The final way that individuals can do their part is by choosing sustainable ecommerce companies. That’s why business decision-makers need to lead the way toward sustainability programs that reduce their carbon footprint and make their business more attractive to consumers.
Find out where you stand. Calculate your carbon footprint here.
Need an easy way to lower your ecommerce site’s carbon footprint? Find out how to add a carbon neutral shipping option with EcoCart.