When asked about our carbon footprint, we think of single-use plastics, transport or even the provision of energy within the home; the physical activities that emit greenhouse gases. Few of us think of our digital lives, but what if I told you that the internet creates more emissions than the entire aviation industry? Consider this a brief introduction to your carbon fingerprint.
The internet has revolutionised what it means to be human, redefining the ways in which we communicate and allowing information to be shared at the push of a button. Very scarcely, however, do we consider what goes on behind the screens and the impact that every like, comment and share has on our planet. As we become increasingly aware of how processes with tangible waste are damaging the planet, many fail to comprehend the pollutive power of the internet. World leaders meet to discuss issues relating to climate change, but rarely do they mention the vast quantities of energy consumed by the data centres, network infrastructure and end-user devices — the result of which we’ve dubbed our ‘carbon fingerprint¹’.
The impact of our digital lives is easily ignored. When we scroll through our newsfeed, catch up on global events or shop online we cannot ‘see’ its environmental impact as it does not leave visible waste behind (i.e. we don’t see smoke emitting from our phones — I hope), nor do we feel any effect on our wallets from the energy consumption of these ‘free’ services. This makes digital carbon emission a less thought-about problem, but no less important than those with physical by-product. I’d also hazard to say that few people know exactly what goes into placing the internet at our fingertips, so let’s break it down.
Put simply, the internet is an interconnected web of networks and data centres that communicate and transmit information with end-user devices across the world (phones, laptops, TVs etc). Enormous infrastructure is needed to house and prop-up the internet, which consumes huge amounts of energy. Data centres act as the internet’s hive-mind, filling vast warehouses globally with the technology that processes, stores and communicates the data behind all online activity; they’re on 24/7, temperature controlled and highly secure. Networks connect data centres, facilitating the flow of information; their activity is provisioned by satellites and cabling that span the world-over. If you were to wrap said subsea cabling around the Earth, they would circle the planet 32.5 times². Networks, just like the data centres they connect, make a significant contribution to the internet’s electricity demand, not to mention the emission associated with the laying of network-permitting cables or satellite manufacture. Finally, there are end-user devices, the part of the process that we can see; the associated carbon emission is probably most evident in their daily need to charge. Despite batteries having become notably more powerful in the past few years, the frequency at which we charge our phones has remained relatively unchanged, meaning that the electrical demand of these devices is growing alongside their computing power³. By 2025, data centres are predicted to share in 33% of global electricity consumed by Information Computer Technology (ICT), with a further 10% used by networks and an additional 15% consumed by smartphones⁴.
Although simplified, you can begin to appreciate how it all adds up; our ‘carbon fingerprint’ is huge! The irony comes when we begin to contextualise. Consider the environmental outcry that would ensue if the aviation industry’s CO2 emissions doubled every few years! My ears hurt just thinking about it! And yet this is exactly the trend that mobile phone data use is charting⁴ — and the silence is deafening. It’s all a matter of perspective and our carbon fingerprint is significantly under-represented.
We need big tech companies to uphold an industry-wide responsibility for internet-related carbon emission. Unfortunately, their tactics are likely to echo previous efforts made in tackling other social issues such as hate speech, the spread of misinformation, and the (inappropriate) appropriation of our data: ‘Delay. Deflect. Deny⁵.’ But we need things to get rolling instead of just rolling off the tongue. And as much as alliteration allies accusations of apathy… it just sounds nice… and not much else. This is where we — you, us and me — come in. We must call for a standardised means of measuring our carbon emissions from social media usage and high traffic accounts, such as brands and influencers, need to take accountability where big tech won’t and pressure them to change.
Confused at where to start? There are a number of things you can do at home to reduce your carbon fingerprint. Here’s a few: turn off your broadband router when leaving the home for extended periods, reduce the time devices take to lock after remaining idle and be mindful for unnecessary use of the internet, like when you zone out in front of Netflix, turn into a scroll-zombie on social media or start streaming content for background noise.
Whether it’s at an individual or societal level, we need to change the all-you-can-eat attitude we have towards data consumption. A little change from a lot of us will make a big difference. So let’s spread the word, put down the phone, turn off the WiFi, stream less and live more!
we know you want to 👀
: https://www.carbonfingerprint.io/ | Last updated 2021
: Hurtado, M. J. (2019) Submarine Cables, the True Communication Highway. https://www.mapfreglobalrisks.com/gerencia-riesgos-seguros/article/submarine-cables-the-true-communication-highway/?lang=en
: Ferreboeuf, H. (2019). ‘Lean ICT: Towards Digital Sobriety’. The Shift Project, Paris, France, 6th March 2019. https://theshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Lean-ICT-Report_The- Shift-Project_2019.pdf
: Andrae, A. S. G (2017). ‘Total Consumer Power Consumption Forecast’. Nordic Digital Business Summit, Helsinki, Finland, 5th October 2017. https://www.researchgate.net/publication /320225452_Total_Consumer_Power_Consumption_Forecast
: Frenkel, S., Confessore, N., Kang, C., Rosenberg, M. and Nicas, J. (2018) Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/technology/facebook-data-russia-election-racism.html