The Internet: Friend Or Foe For The Planet?

What do you think about the internet? The chances are you spend a lot of your time on it. In fact, you’re on it right now, reading this.

As much as we can’t imagine a life without it in today’s world, the internet itself hasn’t been around that long. Emerging in the 50s, it didn’t boom into the internet as we know it until the early 90s. Who remembers dial-up? To browse the ‘net or make a phone call…Those were the days.

Fast forward to 2021 and as of January, there were 65.32 million internet users in the UK alone. That’s an increase of 325,000 since 2020. It’s fair to say it gets used a lot.

But have you ever considered whether there’s an environmental impact of all of this surfing? We’d forgive you if the answer is no. But actually, as much as it may feel the internet is just there, up in the air somewhere, it’s actually very much somewhere.

Let us explain.

Laptop

Source: Unsplash.com

Where exactly is the internet?

The internet is essentially data, and all data needs to be stored. All across the world, from the US to China to here in the UK, there are huge storage facilities that house all of the data that’s whizzing back and forth across the web.

Each of these data storage sites use a huge amount of energy and resources to power them (and keep them cool), with a lot of that coming from non-renewables like petroleum and other fossil fuels. Not to mention, many of the data storage sites in the UK, and their control centres, pull power from two separate locations on the National Grid, and store thousands of litres of diesel as a backup to keep things up and running for 3 days should there be a fault with the power.

All of this is to keep our data safe, our files stored, and our streams streaming. Not so much of a cloud when you think about it.

How much carbon does the internet produce?
By streaming Netflix or watching a YouTube video, you’re increasing your carbon footprint. By a lot.

According to findings from China Water Risk, 5 billion views on YouTube (the amount that the chart-topping song Despacito hit) amounts to 367,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. That’s the equivalent to the emissions of 100,000 taxis in a year!

To summarise this brilliant infographic from Climate Care:

  • Every search we make requires multiple servers, which creates greenhouse gasses.
  • Per page view, the average website produces 1.76g of carbon dioxide.
  • 3.5% of global emissions come from cloud-based services.
  • A single email produces around 4g of carbon dioxide.
factory polluting

Source: Unsplash.com

So what do we do? Stop using the internet?

Now, don’t panic. We know you’re environmentally conscious so these statistics might seem terrifying. But we’re not suggesting that you suddenly jump ship and avoid the internet forever.

There are ways you can reduce your impact day to day:

  • Opt to download rather than stream songs, shows or videos when you can
  • Avoid sending emails when they’re not needed
  • Use a search engine like Ecosia instead of Google, they plant trees for searches to offset the emissions
  • Stop doom-scrolling on social media when you’re bored, there are plenty of other great things to do!

Can the internet be good for the environment?

After all of this, it may seem like the answer is no, but we don’t believe that to be true.

Yes, it certainly has its negative effects, but, there are also many positive reasons to keep the internet alive.

Firstly, the internet is an infinite resource for learning. Whether that’s to find out about the impact of the internet itself from articles like this (wink), to search for eco-friendly and sustainable products to use and love in your home (double wink) or simply to connect with friends and family, the internet provides a platform for positive change and developments, too.

The internet has allowed us as a species to understand our impact on the planet through education, making it accessible for us everyday folk to read, share and act upon the knowledge learned.

It’s allowed us to be inspired by leaders such as Greta Thunberg and Leah Thomas. It makes space for charities that protect the environment to reach wider audiences and increase their fundraising. And, it’s become a vehicle to promote and share the value of living a sustainable life, putting pressure on our leaders and governments to act on lowering our impact.

There have even been many suggestions to say that although the internet creates a huge amount of carbon emissions, its subsequent efficiency has allowed many other sectors to streamline their business. By removing older systems and processes and replacing them with internet-based versions, many companies have been able to reduce their carbon emissions to lower levels than the internet itself.

You’ll be pleased to know too, that many of the tech giants, like Apple, Adobe, and Facebook, have taken note of their digital impact (likely from pressure via the internet!) and are opting for ways to power their servers with green energy. They’re even promising to get their emissions to net-zero!

Wind Turbine

Source: Unsplash.com

If you’re using the internet, use it as a force for good

In summary, the internet, like many things, can be good or bad depending on how you use it. Use it wisely.

What do you think about the effects of the internet?

Will you opt to use it less, or differently, now that you know all of this? Join the conversation and let us know how you’re doing your bit for the earth by tagging us @wearthlondon on Instagram!