No matter how often we shout about the fact that the internet currently contributes 2% of all carbon emissions, this sort of figure can seem quite abstract.
Not only does 2% not seem like that much for something as all-encompassing as the internet, but it’s also hard for most people to visualise how the internet creates emissions. Our interactions online are so divorced from the technology underpinning them that many people don’t even think about it.
To encourage people and businesses to develop a greener internet, it’s important that everyone understands the environmental impact of the internet, and where exactly that impact stems from. Here’s our quick guide on how the internet contributes to climate change – and how taking action as an individual or business can help to make a tangible difference to the planet.
The internet and climate change: facts and figures
The raw figures might lack emotional impact, but they still bear repeating. A 2019 report by Parisian think tank The Shift Project estimated that the internet and its supporting infrastructure accounted for around 3.7% of global carbon emissions. A more conservative study by the Boston Consulting Group stated that telecommunications companies are responsible for 1.6% of emissions, with the broader IT sector being responsible for 3-4% - potentially growing to as much as 14% by 2040.
The reason for the disparity is the disagreement over exactly what ‘the internet’ encompasses (something we’ll get into in more depth below). Some studies look to include the manufacturing process for computer parts, while others include technology companies that make substantial use of the internet, but don’t directly contribute to its infrastructure.
What they all agree on is that, despite improvements in energy efficiency and other technologies, the carbon footprint of the internet is only set to increase as more people and devices get online.
Both the report and study note that the emissions produced by the internet are extremely close to those of the global aviation industry, which is often cited as a major threat to the climate, and a contributor to our carbon footprints.
Another study in the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recycling points to a 40% increase in internet usage in the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic, and the impact this likely had on internet emissions – as well as the way new behaviours such as remote working have increased internet usage even further.
Eco-friendly hosting your clients will love.Our clients have seen their sites’ carbon footprints drop by up to 92% after switching to us.
How the internet contributes to climate change
One of the main ways in which the internet contributes to climate change is an obvious one: the use of dirty energy. Coal, oil and gas remain the predominant means of energy generation around the world, and power most of the world’s data centres. These huge centres host the websites and online services we use everyday, and underpin the entire infrastructure of the internet.
The nature of the web means that servers are online and under load 24 hours a day, demanding enormous amounts of energy. What’s more, the more we use the internet, the more data has to be stored and made accessible, much of which remains online for decades.
It’s estimated, for instance, that an average email uses energy equivalent to 4g of CO2e (total greenhouse gas emissions), and that an email with a large attachment uses 50g. The longer that email sits on a server, the more server space is needed, and the more energy is needed to host and access those emails.
Data centres also have to operate within specific parameters, with climate control required to prevent the huge banks of servers from overheating. While this has increasingly seen data centres moving to cold regions in order to limit expenditure, this comes with its own problems, namely creating the infrastructure in those regions to support the massive flow of data.
On top of all this, the physical creation of computers and other online devices creates emissions directly through manufacturing, as well as destroying the environment in the pursuit of the rare earth minerals used in electronics.Of course, there are also the devices we use to access the internet. The development of the internet – and social media in particular – have increased the amount of media we create and share online.
As photos and videos have increased in resolution, and websites and apps have become flashier and more demanding, the storage requirements for the media we consume have increased. At the same time, creating and viewing this media requires increasingly more powerful devices, encouraging us to replace our phones and computers even more regularly. All of this impacts on the world around us in unseen ways.
How to address the environmental impact of the internet
So what can we do about the environmental impact of the internet, either as individuals or businesses?
The first thing to say is that energy use is not an insurmountable problem. The more dirty energy is phased out and replaced by sources of clean energy (e.g. solar and hydroelectric), the more the impact of a growing internet is minimised. In theory, the internet and the devices that support it could continue to grow exponentially, as long as we are powering them in a sustainable manner.
The problem is that we aren’t, and the timescale for doing so is one that puts the planet at increasing risk. The greatest hope for a rapid shift to renewables is the development of reliable fusion power, and while ongoing trials are promising, this is still decades away. There is also the potential in low energy ARM chips such as Apple Silicon, given that these could revolutionise desktop computers, and by extension servers – however, any switchover to ARM architectures is still some years away.
Until such time as these energy needs are met, the best thing we can do is to reduce our reliance on dirty energy, and increase the efficiency and longevity of the hardware we use. A University of Edinburgh study indicated that delaying the purchase of a new computer or monitor by two years could save 190kg in carbon emissions. By switching to renewable energy sources, reducing our energy consumption, and taking other steps to improve our carbon footprints, we can help to offset the internet’s growing energy and resource consumption.
How Nimbus is helping the planet
All our hard work isn’t just good for the planet - it’s good for your clients, too. They could reduce their sites’ carbon emissions by as much as 92% when they switch to us.
At Nimbus, we’re proudly carbon neutral. Our data centres run on 100% renewable energy, and we have solar panels on our HQ which save a further 3 tonnes of CO2 each year.
Compare that to the 45 million tonnes of CO2 our data centre saves every year by using renewables from other sources, and you’ll understand the huge impact green hosting can have. Plus, we’re not stopping there. We’re continuing to make reductions to our carbon footprint wherever we can.
Our support for ClimatePartner initiatives is contributing to further carbon savings across the world, and we’ve registered with the Green Web Foundation to reiterate our commitments. Everything we do as a business reflects our commitment to carbon neutrality, from big commitments: like our facility meeting ISO14001:2004 and BREEAM standards, to smaller ones: like encouraging our employees to carpool, or move to electric vehicles through our EV scheme.
We’re continuing to find new ways to reduce our environmental impact, and investing in climate offsetting initiatives until we can achieve our goals. Plus, given the impact of e-waste, we’ve partnered with CPR Computer Recycling to ensure none of our electronics go to landfill.