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The Carbon Footprint of the Internet: How Your Data Usage Emits CO2


Simon Vreeswijk

Director of Marketing - 27 Nov, 2023


In an increasingly digital age, internet data usage has become an integral part of our lives. Most people use the internet every day and are reliant on it for many aspects of their daily duties. However, what many internet users may not realize is that our online activities indirectly contribute to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The truth is that we should all try to be good stewards of the planet in which we live. That’s easier said than done when one of the most essential elements of our daily lives can indirectly contribute to long-term CO2 challenges. In this article, we’re exploring the environmental impact of data usage and providing tips for adopting eco-friendly practices while using the internet. Keep reading to learn exactly how your online activity may be contributing to CO2 emissions - and what to do about it.

The Carbon Footprint of Internet Data Usage

Data usage itself is not technically responsible for CO2 emissions. However, the infrastructure and processes involved in data transmission and storage tend to consume significant amounts of energy.

In simple terms, the data centers, network infrastructure, and devices used to get online require electricity. This is often generated from fossil fuel sources, and as a result, CO2 emissions are produced during all phases of data use, from production and operation to disposal of the technologies.

Data centers, which store and process vast amounts of data, account for a significant portion of energy consumption in the digital world. These centers require constant cooling, power backups, and high-speed connectivity, all of which contribute to their environmental impact. Additionally, the energy consumed by network infrastructure, including routers, switches, and cables, further adds to the carbon footprint of data usage. What does that mean in terms of real impact?

According to research from Energuide, electricity consumption of the internet represents a larger portion of the world’s total than you may expect. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) accounted for 6 to 10% of global electricity consumption, or 4% of our greenhouse gas emissions. To put it in perspective, that number is equivalent to all of the air traffic in the world. Studies show that for the internet alone, an average of 400g of CO2 are emitted per inhabitant each year. What’s worse, experts say this figure increases by 5 to 7% every year! Of course these numbers are only averages, and the actual amounts of energy used will vary by person, by region, by country, etc. As you might expect, emissions per person are much greater in industrialized and highly connected areas, with ever increasing numbers.

It’s easy to forget this, but the truth is that every single email, every web search completed, and every social media update posted requires the consumption of energy and therefore the emission of greenhouse gasses.

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Internet Usage by the Numbers

To be even more specific, according to the research published by Energuide, various amounts of energy are required for particular tasks. For example, a one-megabyte email, during its total lifecycle, emits 20g of CO2. To understand those numbers, consider an old 60W lamp lit for 25 min. Add up twenty emails a day (per user) over the course of one year, and you get the same CO2 emissions as a car traveling 1000km.

A single router consumes 10,000 watts, and a very large data center comes close to 100 million watts, or one-tenth of the output of a thermal power station. Plus, in addition to the consumption required to run the servers, electronic circuits have to be cooled using air conditioning. How about a web search? The search for a web address represents about .8g of CO2, but for searches that produce five or more results, that number rises to 10g. Consider a web user who makes an average of 2.6 web searches per day. That person is contributing 9.9 kg of CO2 equivalent per year. Finally, when browsing the web, an average person on a yearly basis needs electricity and water that equates to about the same amount of CO2 that is emitted when traveling 860 miles by car.

The excessive amount of electricity required to make the internet work for all of us is partly due to certain structural or design problems. Many web infrastructures tend to be oversized (and they need to be in order to respond to peak usage). For example, a router typically operates at 60% of its capacity. The problem is that even when inactive, the commonly-used devices consume almost as much energy as when they’re running at complete capacity. Most of the time, no provisions are made to switch them off during off-peak hours.

Looking at things from another angle, applications that are installed on a smartphone are designed with the goal of getting to market quickly. There isn’t much time for optimization, so batteries are drained quickly, often in just one day, so they need frequent charging to top off. Additionally, broadband boxes installed in private homes don’t have a stop button. That means they operate both day and night. They often take about 90 seconds to turn on, initialize and connect, and the internet companies know that we as consumers do not have that much patience. So, there is no real down-time and systems are constantly running, even in the background. Just to enable the internet - aside from when we’re actually using it - requires a certain amount of energy that contributes to CO2 emissions. Even if you’re not active on the internet at a certain moment, rest assured electricity is being used all the same so that you can use it at a moment’s notice when you need to.

10 Tips for More Eco-Friendly Internet Usage

If you’re reading this and feeling a tad bit guilty, not to worry. There are ways to reduce our environmental impact on the internet. By being conscientious users, we can all make a difference in CO2 emissions.

1. Optimize your device settings

Adjusting the power settings of your devices, such as enabling power-saving modes and reducing screen brightness, can help conserve energy and extend battery life. This simple step can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. Many devices have energy-saving features like low-power mode, automatic shutdown, or smart sensors. Also consider turning off bluetooth and wireless functions when they aren’t in use, and disabling unnecessary applications and programs. Related, another pro tip is to use power strips or surge protectors to avoid phantom loads, which are the tiny amounts of electricity that devices draw even when they are turned off.

2. Improve email usage

It’s a good practice to monitor the size of emails that you send. Try to reduce the size of your attachments, or compress them. Whenever possible, send a hyperlink instead of an actual document or graphic. Other best practices include never sending on chain mail, petitions, or other items that could be fraudulent. Additionally, ignore the urge to reply “Ok” or “thank you” to an email that doesn’t really require a response, lengthening the thread - reducing even one email is helpful!

3. Use smarter web search

As we mentioned above, it takes a surprising amount of energy to return robust search results. Whenever possible, type in an actual web address instead of performing a search for it. Be very specific with your keywords in order to cut down on the number of results that are returned, and keep commonly viewed websites in your favorites so they’re easy to get to without a search engine.

4. Consume video content carefully

Video is hugely popular online and becoming more so with the use of apps like TikTok. In fact, video made up a whopping 82% of all web traffic in 2022 (compared to 73% before the pandemic). We would never tell you to skip the videos, but just view them sparingly and be intentional about how you consume video. For example, don’t use YouTube to play background music while you work. Rather, download the files to your device and listen to them in local mode. You can also adjust the quality of the video you’re watching, and only pick HD when needed. It’s also worth noting that sometimes audio calls are just as effective as videoconferencing. Many of us have gotten used to seeing each other on Zoom, but for some simple discussions the video portion is not needed.

5. Leverage efficient browsing habits

Practice mindful browsing by avoiding unnecessary data-intensive activities. Close unused tabs, limit video streaming quality, and disable auto-play features. These small changes can conserve data and reduce energy consumption. We have plenty of articles on tab management and other ways to streamline internet use on our blog - make sure to check them out for more specific suggestions.

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6. Pay attention to cloud storage and data management

Use cloud storage services wisely. Regularly clean and organize your files, delete unnecessary data, and opt for efficient compression methods. This not only improves data accessibility but also reduces the energy required for storage and transmission.

7. Pick energy-efficient devices

One eco-friendly move is to simply keep your devices longer and replace them less often. You might want to see if you can hang onto your computer for 5 years, when the average life is 4 years, for example. This also reduces the energy used for manufacturing and transportation. However, that’s not always an option. When purchasing new devices, consider their energy efficiency ratings. Look for devices with Energy Star certification, as they consume less power during operation. These devices are not only eco-friendly but can also save you money on electricity bills.

8. Support renewable energy-powered data centers

There are internet service providers and data centers that prioritize renewable energy sources. Many companies are now investing in solar, wind, or hydroelectric power to reduce their environmental impact. Choose providers that actively promote their use of clean energy.

9. Practice better e-waste management

Much of the energy used by technology hardware is related to transportation and destruction. You’ve probably heard of the term “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, and that concept applies here. Properly dispose of old or malfunctioning electronic devices in a way that considers the environment. Many components of these devices can be recycled or repurposed, reducing the need for new resources. Check for local e-waste recycling programs that ensure responsible handling of electronic waste. When you are ready to dispose of hardware, look into social causes like local schools or community organizations. They might be able to use your materials and they’ll be grateful for the contribution! You may also want to research buy-back or trade-in programs when you’re ready to upgrade.

10. Do a digital detox

Perhaps the most important tip of all, that can help in more areas than one. Take breaks from the digital world and engage in offline activities. Encourage face-to-face interactions, read physical books, explore nature, or pursue hobbies that don't rely on being online. Not only will this reduce your data usage but also provide a refreshing change of pace. The less you use the internet, the less you’ll feel the need to.

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One final tip: don’t be shy about educating others on what you learned in this article. For many people, all of the ways that internet usage can contribute to increasingly concerning CO2 issues will be new information. Once you see the numbers add up, you get a better feeling for the ultimate carbon footprint that using the internet can have - and it can be shocking. It’s ok to share content related to the topic, discuss tips, or explain why you’re living your digital life a little differently.

As we become increasingly reliant on internet technologies, it is essential to be aware of the indirect CO2 emissions associated with data usage. By adopting eco-friendly practices such as optimizing device settings, using efficient browsing habits, and supporting renewable energy-powered data centers, we can reduce our carbon footprint. Lets each do our part to embrace a responsible approach to internet usage, ensuring a more sustainable digital future. For more specific tips on all things digital, make sure to follow Shift’s blog.  It’s the place where our experts share updates, tips, and tricks to keep you productive and up to speed on today’s technologies.