The secret environmental impact of the internet

Did you know there is an environmental impact of the internet?

If I asked you to name unsustainable industries you will likely think of fossil fuels, aviation, fast fashion and animal agriculture. It’s likely that the internet industry isn’t something that springs to mind. However, it should. It’s a huge secret polluter and is an industry that needs to be a part of our sustainability conversations.

What Impact Is It Having?

In 2019, researchers estimated that global internet usage generated the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions as the world’s aviation industry. And that was before the pandemic, which drove a huge increase in global internet usage due to remote working, the shift to online meetings and a vast uptake of socialising through online platforms.

Currently the internet industry is responsible for 4% of global carbon emissions and consumes a staggering 10% of the worlds electricity, which is inevitably created through the burning of fossil fuels. [Source: Eco Friendly Web Alliance].

What’s Driving Its Impact?

Put simply, it’s down to it’s success in becoming so integral in our modern lives.

Take a moment to think about how much you use the internet on a daily basis. You will quickly realise that it is deeply woven into both your business day and personal life.

Emails, online meetings, sending and downloading large files, browsing websites, browsing social media, streaming TV, reading e-books and magazines, online shopping, reading this article; the list goes on and on.

The Internet’s Environmental Impact in Numbers

On an individual basis the impact of these things is small. But with most issues in our modern world, it’s not so much the single action that’s the issue but the sheer number of these actions that’s the problem.

For example, a single Google search emits between 0.2 and 7 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2). This isn’t a huge impact on the surface of it, but when you consider that there are 40,000 Google searches every single second it quickly adds up to a huge impact.

Likewise, a single email is estimated to emit 4grams of CO2. Add a large attachment to that email and we’re looking at 50 grams of carbon dioxide for ONE email. Again, not a big deal in isolation, but there were 306.4 billion emails sent daily in 2020.

Now consider your internet browsing habits. An average web page emits 1.76g of CO2 per page view and there are just under 200 million active websites globally. Google alone receives 92.5BN visits a month, and that’s visitors not page views. Through browsing the internet an average person will use around 365 kWh electricity and 2,900 litres of water in a year according to the Eco Friendly Web Alliance. When you look at that in terms of CO2 it’s equal to traveling 870 miles/1,400 km by car. That’s further than driving from Lands End to John O’Groats (the length of the British Isles, 837 miles / 1347 KM).

Is it all Bad?

Potentially, no.

The large scale shift to remote working and online meetings driven by the pandemic can be seen as a huge positive. Reducing the number of flights and journeys taken by car or plane to get to the office, events or clients will be a huge win for the environment.

However, a sample of employees who shifted to working from home in California during the pandemic found that the decline in vehicle miles travelled was accompanied by a 26% increase in the average number of trips taken.

Meaning we need to be mindful that we don’t erode the benefits of the transition to digital working by increasing our other damaging activities.

Can I Do Anything as an Individual?

I explained that individual actions are small and it’s the cumulative impact that’s the issue. But that does not mean that we can’t all do something to reduce the impact the internet has.

After all, it’s been a collective mass of individual actions that has helped to get us to this point. So it stands to reason that it can be a collective mass of individual actions that help to turn the situation around.

Some Simple Actions You Can Take

Delete your Emails and Clear Your Cloud

Your emails, and remotely stored files are housed in data centres. Which are huge industrial buildings full of servers. These servers run 24/7 meaning that they use a lot of power. Which in turn generates a lot of heat and means we need to use even more power to run climate control systems to keep everything cool. The less we store the fewer servers and in turn less power we’ll need.

Switch Off Your Video When You Can

A study by Purdue University found that switching off your video in online meetings can reduce your carbon emissions by 96%!

Switch to Ecosia

As mentioned above, search engine usage has a massive impact. A simple way to fix this is by changing your search engine to Ecosia.

Ecosia’s servers run on 200% renewable energy, and every search request removes 1kg of CO2 from the atmosphere. They also use their profits to plant trees and at the time of writing have planted over 153 million trees.

Build a Sustainable Website

If you have a business this an important step you can take to reduce your business’ digital carbon footprint. The process behind building a sustainable website includes a wide range of factors which you can explore in this article written by Kakadu Creative – ‘What is sustainable Web Design?

Switch Your Website to Green Hosting

Green hosting, or eco-friendly hosting, is achieved through a range of green technologies and activities to ensure carbon neutrality or negativity.

Switch to a 100% Renewable Energy Provider

A big part of our individual impact is down to the energy we use and how that energy has been generated. A simple and massively effective thing we can all do is switch to a 100% renewable energy provider like Ecotricity and Green Energy UK. Both of which are true 100% renewable electricity and green gas providers.

Yes, they can be more expensive than other providers, but always focusing on getting the lowest price has led to so many of the problems we face in society today. We need to start focusing on more than price if we are to create a sustainable future.

This article was written by Kayleigh Nicolaou, co-founder of Kakadu Creative, a full-service ethical creative agency based in Stamford, Lincolnshire. As part of their mission the Kakadu Creative team are raising awareness of the environmental impact the internet has and are champions of sustainable web design, along with their green website hosting service.

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