Carbon Cost – Uncovering The Extent Of Internet Emissions

In this article, I talk exclusively about the emissions which fuel our data driven lifestyles. I will reveal the often unconsidered daily costs of running, storing and processing these online activities. This is discussed in the context of our personal carbon footprints which need to be addressed to reduce the risk associated with our current climate change trajectory. Fostering a greater awareness of the humanitarian cost of our internet usage fits. This fits within broader ambitions to make the necessary adjustments to achieve a significant reduction in emissions in the near future.

We still have carbon heavy lifestyles. The persistent and unrelenting hunger to consume and emit carbon dioxide, along with other harmful greenhouse gases (GHG), will have consequences for the future of our species. There has been a consistent trend in climatic conditions over the last several decades. According to the research team at Climate Central, 2019 was ‘the second warmest year on record.’ This fits into a broader rise in temperature where the last 10 years have been the ‘hottest decade’ since records began. This must energize us to engage in a unified and coordinated effort to reduce our global emissions. We must align with the ‘The Paris Agreement’ and urge countries to work towards their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), in the first ever globally unified emission reduction scheme.

As a recent assessment by the World Resources Institute concludes our currently diverging climate is starting to have a major humanitarian impact. For example, it is predicted that a twofold increase in flooding events will be experienced by people over the next decade. This is increasing ‘from 65 million in 2010 to 132 million in 2030.’ Adjusting our current habits must be a priority to work towards decreasing the risk of rising sea levels and limiting unpredictable seasonal shifts. These changes consistently affect developing countries at a higher rate than the historically largest net emitters such as the USA and European countries. Included in this is a greater awareness of the true carbon cost of our cyber-based activities.

Fueling our online lives

From internet searches, to texts and taking into consideration the high energy needs of cloud storage, it is easy to forget the sheer quantity of energy needed to power our online lifestyles. The power of the internet to foster awareness and advocacy is clear, however, connecting us to such a vast global network has energy consequences. Despite perceptions that the internet is a sustainable resource, and a key weapon in the fight against climate change, the web requires significant fuel. If powered by non-renewables, this communication tool will begin to play an increasingly large role in our overall emissions.

Research suggests that the internet has a carbon cost that is ‘estimated to exceed those of air travel’ in a pre-COVID-19 world. A lot of this is to do with the information storage as well as the sheer amount of data being consumed and transported. This is the ‘age of big data’ where industrial amounts of data is stored to digitally map the intricate details of our everyday lives. You may have learned this will have an impact on your privacy but it also creates a large carbon footprint for the online and computer sector.

A Greenpeace report titled, ‘How Clean is your Cloud?,’ draws attention to the clear costs of our information communication technology (ICT) systems. They note that these systems are naturally ‘energy-intensive.’ This can evade our attention because such energy is an indirect user cost, rather than a direct consequence of use, like putting fuel in a car.

Greenpeace cites that for some of the biggest companies like, ‘Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo’ data stored in cloud facilities requires huge amounts of power. Such large servers require immense continuous cooling. For the largest data centres, which are visible from space, they can ‘consume the equivalent of nearly 180,000 homes.’ To further emphasize the cost of these connections, James Vincent (published by The Verge) recently estimated that Bitcoin computing activity, which continuously checks and rechecks its currency data ‘consumes more energy than Switzerland.’ This is a yearly terawatt rate (TWh per year) of 64.15. For further context this is just below that of Austria at 64.6 Twh per year.

Cultivating awareness

The internet is often presented as an intangible thing. This is why data storage is colloquially referred to as a cloud; something which can’t be touched or held in your hands. We may connect with it physically through our phones, laptops and other devices, but this does not show how the internet is itself a physical entity literally stored in giant severs. Much like the process of throwing something ‘away,’ where does our data go when we aren’t actively using it?

Deciding where to store this data, and how this equipment will be powered becomes essential to minimizing the carbon footprint of these processes. In fact, an article by Grassi (published on medium) noted that ‘by 2020, tech will contribute to 3.0 – 3.6% of global greenhouse emissions.’ This has doubled over the last decade or so and is set to increase as the internet becomes even more ubiquitous. Here, developing countries are increasingly coming online, providing connection points to rural communities, which according to the UN has huge poverty reduction capabilities. However, greater attention needs to be placed on how these increased connections can threaten to further increase rising emissions.

The powering of these centers to allow for the use of data in our day to day lives will require innovation. This means creating green ways to power these servers as well as increasing their capacity to allow for more people to have equitable access. Switching to renewables seems to be half the answer here. If the source of power for cooling comes from solar, wind or geothermal, this reduction creates a neutral energy loop. However, this also requires us to change our online habits and become more conscious of the carbon costs of that ‘reply all’ email. Remembering to turn your computer off, rather than leave it in standby. Even running your computer with energy saver software turned on.

Tackling Climate change

The consequences of inaction are clear when combined with other carbon heavy industries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC ‘1.5 Report’ synergizes contemporary research and states that current ‘human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels.’ Here, a further 0.5°C or 1.0°C change having catastrophic consequences for our lives and the ecosystems we depend on.

Humanitarian work has one primary goal: protecting human life. Often this means bringing attention to crises situations such as civil unrest, resource conflict or a migrant crisis. These events have consequences for persons who are directly involved. However, we know that many instances of injustice go unnoticed. They occur beyond our limited perception or are caused by factors we had yet to consider. For example, the current pandemic challenges our understanding of a crisis, which is now tied to our everyday experiences and as a normative part of our lives.

In a similar way climate change is an ongoing event that isn’t bounded or fixed. Unlike a storm or an eruption there is no clear beginning, nor is there a clear end point. There is a clear challenge to find the correct ways to act to prevent negative future consequences. This revolves around two areas, creating an awareness to current issues as well as fostering a sense of urgency. Mobilizing action and calling for change is a task everyone must engage in to ensure we make the correct steps to tackle climate change.