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How Is The Internet So Polluting

Posted on 22 October 2021

It seems like the internet is a virtual world floating around us, just a whirl of WiFi and clouds. So what exactly is the problem?

In reality, the carbon footprint of our tech, the internet and the systems supporting it account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, which is similar to the entire airline industry! And the internet's carbon footprint is growing. Rapidly1.

Our daily lifestyle of viewing, saving and exchanging endless streams of data is actually powered by a vast network of physical infrastructure, a chain of energy-burning electronics. Data centres, transmission networks, wifi-routers and the devices we use all consume energy.

Data centres store your data, images, emails. They also house everything we stream and all the websites we browse.

Data centres are vast banks of servers running non-stop, using cooling machines to deal with heat from each server and control humidity to keep the servers stable. Currently 80% of the electricity they use comes from fossil fuel power stations.

Every time you browse the internet, send and receive email or use an app, data gets transferred between your device and the servers in the data centres. The more data sent and stored, the more energy is used.

Back in the 90s when we all waited for our computers to load websites line by line, designers were careful to keep websites data-light. After all, no-one wanted to wait ten minutes to join a chat room. Now websites load in a matter of seconds. Irrespective of the amount of data. Web designers often rely on templates and bloated website builders because it’s quick and easy to build websites this way.

Websites are getting larger every year. This graph shows average page weight from 2011 to 2021.

Website Kilobyte load average

Data-light websites look and function just like any regular website, but they’re built on a slim-downed framework. Large images and even videos are fine, but these are served up in optimised formats. Rather than use huge website builders, any complex coding is added to the site only for the necessary purposes. This typically cuts the carbon footprint of a website by 55%.

We'll leave you with some good news

There is a lot of work going into powering data centres using renewable energy. And as Google starts to use a website’s load speed as a factor in ranking more and more sites will slim down.

In the meantime, use the internet wisely (and find a web developer who cares 😉).

And here's a few statistics2:

A Google search:

  • 0.5g CO2e on simple search3
  • 5.6g CO2e 5 minutes web browsing from a smartphone
  • 8.2g CO2e 5 minutes web browsing from a laptop (approx. the same carbon footprint as boiling the water for the cup of tea you’ll drink while scrolling)

The world’s ICT accounts for 1.4 billion tonnes CO2e. Of which:

  • User devices – 518 million tonnes CO2e
  • Networks -  196 million tonnes CO2e
  • Data centres -  140 million tonnes CO2e

 1 Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think - BBC Future , 2020

2 Berners-Lee, Mike, "How bad are bananas?", Profile Books, 2020

3 CO2e stands for Carbon dioxide equivalent. Carbon dioxide is the primary baddie in global warming pollution, but other greenhouse gases are important. For example, methane (CH4) is released in smaller quantities but is 75 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide (N2O) and refrigerants are respectively 300 times and thousands of times more potent. All these gases are taken into account, and expressed as CO2e.

Only 0.16g of CO2 is produced every time someone visits our homepage!
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