By Roberta Attanasio
All the activities we carry out online come with an environmental cost—no, it’s not only the relatively small amounts of carbon dioxide emitted because of the energy it takes to run our own multiple devices and power wireless networks. Rather, it’s the large amounts of CO2 emitted by the energy intensive high-end servers and data centers that usually sit in places we almost never see. Think of large facilities consisting of agglomerates of technical equipment, power subsystems, uninterruptible power supplies, ventilation and cooling systems, and so on.
Now, results from a new study (The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing Internet use), show the environmental impact caused by the increased Internet use we’ve been experiencing for the past year or so. The increased use is related to remote work and demand for stay-at-home entertainment spearheaded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because data processing uses a lot of electricity, and any production of electricity results in carbon, water and land footprints, the 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, and in online gaming and miscellaneous web surfing. For their estimates, they gathered data for Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S.
The researchers found that the global carbon footprint could grow by as much as 34.3 million metric tons of CO2 emissions if remote work continues until the end of 2021. This increase in emissions would require a forest twice the size of Portugal to fully sequester all the emitted CO2. The associated water footprint is enough to fill 317,200 Olympic size swimming pools and the land footprint is about the size of Los Angeles.
One hour of videoconferencing or streaming, for example, emits 150-1,000 grams of CO2 (for comparison, a gallon of gasoline burned from a car emits about 8,887 grams of CO2), and requires 2-12 liters of water.
Notably, the researchers also found that leaving the camera off during a web call can reduce these footprints by 96%. Streaming content in standard definition rather than in high definition while using apps such as Netflix or Hulu also could bring an 86% reduction.
Study leader Kaveh Madani said: “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.”
The researchers point out that their estimates are rough, as they rely on data made available by service providers and third parties. However, they believe that the estimates still help to document a trend and bring a more comprehensive understanding of environmental footprints associated with internet use.