The Dirty Internet
In the 21st century which is dominated and driven by the power of the internet, it is difficult to wrap one’s head around the massive toll that our online activities incur on the health of the Blue Planet. According to an estimate, the internet is expected to generate about 20% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2030, and all this will occur at a touch of a button!
It is the high time that each one of us analyse our online behaviour and do away with mindless internet searches, sending unnecessary ‘thank you’ emails and of course, binge-watching!
The internet has become a tool for sustainability. You don’t have to use tons of paper to note down information nor you have to keep driving to banks to carry out financial transactions. It is natural to feel that we are saving the environment by reducing our use of paper, however, this does not overshadow the fact that digital technologies account for more carbon emissions than the aerospace industry.
On a basic level, energy is needed to run the electronic devices as well as to store and share information. Data centres – which host servers that collect, store and process online information- consume a huge amount of energy and release heat that causes greenhouse effects. While many companies claim that they power their data centres using renewable energy, yet the dark reality remains that many of them are still running on energy generated by burning fossil fuels and hence, the pollution.
What’s more worrying is the need of these data centres to run 24 hours a day for people to access the internet at any time of the day. This means greater energy use, greater release of heat and therefore, greater pollution levels.
“One solution to reduce the heat dissipated by cloud data centers consists of powerful cooling systems, which in turn impact on electricity consumption” (Rossi, Xavier, De Rose, Calheiros, & Buyya. 2017). Given our inconspicuous consumption, it calls for an urgent change in the way we make use of the internet.
Here are some staggering figures –
- The carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, according to some estimates.
- As per the reports published by Shift Project, a French think-tank, watching online videos accounts for the biggest chunk of the world’s internet traffic – 60% – and generates 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is roughly 1% of global emissions.
- Netflix’s global energy consumption increased by 84% in 2019 to a total of 451,000 megawatt hours – enough to power 40,000 average US homes for a year.
It is important to understand that our continuous browsing and gaming online can create carbon footprints. As rightly pointed out by Sharon George, a lecturer in environmental science at Keele University, “People can’t assume that just because something doesn’t have a physical format, that it’s got no carbon attached to it. There’s still electronic use, servers involved, and the digital world does still have a carbon footprint.”
While tech giants such as Microsoft, Apple and Google are harnessing solar, wind and geo-thermal power to run the data centres, and science has come up with feasible solutions to cool them down, much more needs to be done in this field. Sustainable solutions such as solar-powered websites, which use as little power as possible (like Kris De Decker’s Low-tech magazine), have shown the way forward in the direction to making the internet ‘cleaner’. However, these solutions are difficult and too expensive to be implemented by companies that are incorporated to make profits at any cost (read environmental cost).
The real change needs to come from the consumers themselves. It doesn’t mean that one has to stop streaming the online videos or writing emails. Rather, each one of us must be conscious of our data consumption. Unsubscribing from newsletters that you are no longer interested in, sending text messages instead of emails, swapping email attachments for links to documents and switching off the devices when not in use- these are some of the easiest ways to reduce your digital carbon footprint.
In totality, if consumers are expected to critically analyse their online presence and activities, multinationals too need to review their commitment towards making the internet ‘greener and cleaner’.
The Inequality Crisis
The world is clearly divided into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. We have been talking about approximately 4.1 billion people- which constitutes about 53.6% of the global population – who have very limited awareness of the detrimental impact of the internet on the ongoing climate crisis. Yet around half of the world’s population is still waiting for the day to understand what exactly is the internet and how is it used. With the advent of the internet, it was thought that a globalised world will create opportunities for all. However, only well-educated, economically stable, urban class has been in a better position to take advantage of the newer technologies. And the realisation that the internet can directly influence climate change might deepen this existing inequality. Gary Cook, an information technology expert at Greenpeace, argues that income inequalities are going to dictate the future of internet access. As the internet services are likely to become expensive due to investment in improving the existing infrastructures, only wealthier individuals will be able to support their internet-driven lifestyles. This aligns with the general consensus that climate change will worsen global economic inequality.
The pressing need of the hour is to draw the line – where to put an end to the useless internet consumption, where to quit the thought of exploiting nature and where to abandon the goals of profit maximisation. This itself will ultimately lead to a more equitable, happier, prosperous, sustainable world.