The servers that host web pages and let you use social networks consume a lot of electricity, which generates a large quantity of emissions
Surfing the internet, sending messages and sharing memes, gifs or photos of your weekend getaway are not exclusively activities of the digital world. They also have real consequences for the environment.
In order for websites, platforms, and other internet services to work, they need to store data on servers that operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is also the energy used for the terminals to be able to send and receive data, and to manufacture them.
The energy footprint of the information technology sector is equivalent to 7% of global electricity consumption, according to Greenpeace’s report Clicking Clean 2017, while the digital sector produces 1.4% of greenhouse gas emissions around the world, according to data collected by the World Economic Forum.
These figures will increase over time. Internet traffic is expected to triple in 2020 due to the arrival of 5G technology, which will allow us to consume more gigabytes at faster speeds. In addition, the internet will be accessible by more and more people.
To all this, we must add the pollution that comes from manufacturing the devices that we use to surf the internet, such as mobile phones, tablets, and computers.
Furthermore, these activities have an impact on the health and life of the people who manufacture them. Some companies produce their devices in countries where workers’ rights are violated or use minerals obtained through child labour, according to Amnesty International.
‘Streaming’, the most polluting activity
Watching a movie or series on our mobiles or playing a game online has become a perfect plan. But this habit may not be the most ecological.
The reproduction of content on the internet or streaming represented 63% of global traffic in 2015 and could reach 80% of the data consumed on the internet in 2020, according to the Greenpeace report. This is because a video consumes more data than a text to download.
In 2018 alone, video traffic caused the emission of 300 million tons of CO2 according to the Shift Project, a French research group. That is the equivalent to the annual issuance of all sectors of a country like Spain.
As a consequence, consuming content on the internet or storing our videos and photos in the cloud (a server that we can access without having it physically at home) has triggered the demand for energy.
The problem, moreover, is that many of these services use non-renewable energy sources to function.
Enjoy the internet without burdening the planet
Nowadays it is impossible to give up the internet in our daily life. However, there are some actions that can help reduce the impact of the digital world on our planet.
In the case of music and video streaming services, it is better to access them through an optic fibre connection, which is more efficient and less polluting, than through mobile data.
Another of the easiest and fastest actions we can take is to clean the inbox of our email. Accumulated emails take up server space and spend more energy to keep them running.
We can also analyse which websites are greener. The Website Carbon tool tells us if visiting a certain website is more or less sustainable.
Although our small contribution can also help, the main people responsible for ensuring an ecological connection are the big internet companies. If most of these companies would choose renewable energy to power servers and devices, the climate impact would be much less.
The Internet and the digital industry will be decisive in reducing the impact of climate change because they have reinvented our way of working and consuming. But, to make it possible, digital companies have to set an example.