A sustainable Internet: What is the cost of our current use?

When people hear about sustainability, typical thoughts circle around travel, consumerism, buildings,  the physical world. Conceptually,  the web and the devices that allow us access to it, appear clean in their usage, far removed from belching power plants and noxious fumes.

But the reality is that every search performed on Google, every Netflix show watched, every Spotify song listened to, triggers servers somewhere to process and output data and then more servers to transmit it, consequently consuming electricity and burning fossil fuels.

Global electricity consumption by the internet is considerable, accounting for 1% of all emissions from burning fossil fuels (aviation accounts for 2.4%) the irony isn’t lost that the man who gave this stat is the brother of the “inventor” of the Web.

The industry is taking steps to reduce CO2 emissions. New movements encourage designers to consider sustainability in the web site design phase. Internet behemoths such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have made promises to go net-zero. Some have found novel ways to consume less by submerging data centres or building data centres in cold environments (a lot of electricity is consumed by just cooling the servers)

But there are actions we can take as users that will also help reduce those emissions:

  1. Drop the quality. Video streaming accounts for the biggest volumes of data sent over the internet. Watching something in HD makes everything super-realistic but consider the impact. Go for the SD version and you can still enjoy the content, but drastically reduce the data streamed.
  2. Do you need to search? When you know the web address to go to, open your browser and type it in. Or save it as a bookmark. Entering a keyword into the browser’s address bar (such as “BBC”)  will provoke a search. Each search consumes some electricity. Cumulatively, those searches have a massive impact.
  3. Download rather than stream. Is something on heavy rotation on Spotify? Then download it. This will also save your data.
  4. Unfortunately, emails harm the environment, accounting for a huge carbon footprint. Consider not sending that email. Could you just phone? If you need to send it, just take a moment to think does everyone cc’d need to read this?
  5. Change to a more sustainable search. There is a greener alternative to Google. Ecosia.org plant trees from the money they make through you using their search and claim 100% renewable energy usage. And they appear to be true to their word.  
  6. Switch off. The ultimate sustainable method!

Of course, the Internet has brought huge benefits to a more sustainable world. Online meetings have reduced the need to travel. The consumption of the written word has moved more online, reducing the number of books and newspapers printed.  But it’s just a conscious move for everyone to recognise that their Internet use still consumes fossil fuels. And as Berners-Lee says,

“When we take a small action to cut carbon, it’s a message to yourself that you care about the climate emergency.”