Your Internet Habits and its Carbon Footprint

[UPDATED: February 27, 2021]

With rapid digitalisation, it is difficult to imagine passing every day without using the Internet. 

The Internet allows us to send messages, stream videos, download files, listen to music, and many other things right at our fingertips, yet our internet habits leave an astonishing carbon footprint on our planet.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

What is the Internet?

The internet is a global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols. 

As explained by The Guardian, the internet is the wider network that allows computer networks around the world run by companies, governments, universities, and other organisations to communicate with one another. 

It is a system architecture that transformed communication and commerce to what it is today, as we know it, by allowing different computer networks around the world to interconnect.

How much energy does the internet consume?

The information and communications technology (ICT) industry can consume 20% of the world’s electricity and release over 5% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2025. 

Anders Andrae, the author of the study, also expects the industry power demand to increase from 2-300Twh of electricity a year to 1,200 or 3,000Twh by 2025.

In other words, energy use will rapidly increase to meet the demands of the ICT industry in the coming years.

According to the International Energy Agency, data centers processing and storing data from various online activities (i.e., sending emails and streaming videos) already account for 1% of global electricity use.

Other emerging technologies will continually demand more data centre and network services.

While the growth of the ICT industry proves to be a promising prospect, the increase in demand can potentially hamper global efforts to meet climate change targets.

Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic 

Between February and mid-April 2020, global internet traffic surged by almost 40% during the peak of the Covid-19 containment measures.

This was primarily due to an increase in demand for video conferencing, online gaming, and social networking.

This growth in global internet traffic coincides with the rising trends in data and digital services, which will drive its exponential growth over the next couple of years.

Notable facts to consider:

  • Global internet traffic is expected to double by 2022 to 4.2 zettabytes per year (4.2 trillion gigabytes)
  • The number of mobile internet users is projected to increase from 3.8 billion in 2019 to 5 billion by 2025

One thing for certain – the internet is here to stay.

The carbon footprint of our internet activity

In terms of individual internet activity, our contribution to global emissions may not turn out to be as significant.

Yet, when multiplied by approximately 4.1 billion people (51.36% of the global population) currently using the internet, things can add up quickly.

Here is a breakdown of the carbon footprint of typical things that we do on the internet, referenced from BBC’s Smart Guide to Climate Change:

Addressing carbon emissions from our internet habits

While it may seem unrealistic to alter our internet habits to be conscious of our carbon footprint, we believe this to be achievable via mindset changes and habit adjustments.

Fewer memes and cat videos, perhaps

Take the emails, for instance. By omitting unnecessary emails, we will be doing the planet a favor by cutting down on carbon emissions. It will also help to unsubscribe from mailing lists we no longer appreciate and replacing large attachments with links.

OVO Energy estimated that if every Briton sent one less thank-you email per day, we would be able to save 16,433 tonnes of carbon per year. This figure is estimated to be equivalent to 81,152 flights to Madrid!

Streaming online videos also contribute significantly to our carbon footprint. For our planet, it may be worthwhile to consider adjusting autoplay and resolution settings and stopping videos from playing unintentionally.

Energy efficiency and renewable energy sources for data centres

Efforts can be taken on a larger scale, too.

Current trends in mobile networks point to a shift away from older 2G and 3G technology towards 4G and 5G, which are about five times more energy-efficient than 3G and 50 times more efficient than 2G.

Malaysia is speeding up 5G deployments via a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) which is part of the MyDIGITAL blueprint aiming to transform the country into a digitally-driven, high-income nation and a regional leader in the digital economy by 2050.

Another solution is utilizing renewable energy sources instead of non-renewables in cooling a data centre’s processors. 

Google, for instance, has been striving to make Google data centres some of the most efficient in the world. Google not only sources enough carbon-free energy sources to match their consumption in every place they operate, but their data centres use much less energy than the typical data centre.

Ideally, data centres are planned holistically to ensure that these data centres can deliver performance goals and meet business needs while taking into account the vast carbon footprint in building these data centres.

For a comprehensive list of the top 9 mistakes in designing and planning data centres, check out this article.

Establish an organisational carbon baseline to manage emissions and mitigate risk

With less than a decade to go in achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs), businesses and organisations worldwide should begin measuring their footprint for risk and impact mitigation.

A carbon baseline is an inventory of sources of carbon emissions from business activities.

Building a multi-year emissions baseline will enable your organisation to have a better grasp of recent historical greenhouse gas emissions trends and understand business trajectories for future emissions.

For information about establishing carbon baselines and steps to take next, read this article here.

Digitalisation at Biji-biji Initiative 

As a social enterprise, our digital tools and skills are among our most valuable assets to improve our productivity and efficiency, which in turn affects our abilities to create a positive impact on the communities we serve.

The Internet, no doubt, is crucial to our daily operations and dealings throughout our projects, programmes, and events. 

Coincidentally, we are a strong proponent for sustainability in our operations. Striking a balance between our internet habits and being conscious of our carbon footprint is no easy feat, but it remains imperative to strive for a sustainable future.

What do your internet habits look like?

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