Is your internet use harming the environment?


Wednesday, 20 January, 2021


Is your internet use harming the environment?

Despite the record drop in global carbon emissions in 2020, a pandemic-driven shift to remote work and more at-home entertainment has presented significant environmental impact due to how internet data is stored and transferred around the world.

A study supported by the Purdue Climate Change Research Centre has revealed that one hour of videoconferencing or streaming emits 150–1000 grams of carbon dioxide (for comparison, approximately three litres of petrol burned from a car emits about 8887 grams of carbon dioxide) and requires 2–12 litres of water.

Researchers estimated that turning cameras off during a web call can reduce carbon footprints by 96%, while streaming content in standard definition rather than in high definition while using Netflix or Hulu can also bring an 86% reduction.

The study, conducted by researchers from Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, analyses the water and land footprints associated with internet infrastructure, in addition to carbon footprints. The findings are published in Resources, Conversation & Recycling.

Roshanak Nateghi, a Purdue Professor of industrial engineering, noted that focusing on one type of footprint could make you miss out on others that can provide a more holistic look at environmental impact.

A number of countries have reported at least a 20% increase in internet traffic since March; if the trend persists through the end of 2021, this increased internet use would require a forest of about 18,5443 square kilometres to sequester the emitted carbon. The additional water needed in the processing and transmission of data would be enough to fill more than 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Researchers estimated the carbon, water and land footprints associated with each gigabyte of data used in YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and 12 other platforms, as well as in online gaming and miscellaneous web surfing. Findings revealed that the more video used in an application, the larger the footprints.

Because data processing uses a lot of electricity, and any production of electricity has carbon, water and land footprints, reducing data download reduces environmental damage.

“Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint,” said Kaveh Madani, who led and directed this study.

Prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns, the internet’s carbon footprint had increased, accounting for about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But the water and land footprints of internet infrastructure have been largely overlooked in studies of how internet use impacts the environment. Madani teamed up with Nateghi’s research group to investigate how these footprints might be affected by increased internet traffic, finding that the footprints varied by web platform and country. Researchers gathered data for Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, the UK and the US.

Researchers discovered that processing and transmitting internet data in the US has a carbon footprint that is 9% higher than the world median, but water and land footprints that are 45% and 58% lower, respectively. Although Germany has a carbon footprint well below the world median, its water and land footprints are much higher, with the country’s energy production land footprint 204% above the median.

Researchers noted that these estimates are rough, since they’re derived from the data made available by service providers and third parties. However, they add that the estimates will help to document a trend and bring more understanding of environmental footprints associated with internet use.

“These are the best estimates given the available data. In view of these reported surges, there is a hope now for higher transparency to guide policy,” Nateghi said.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Tierney

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