The carbon footprint of the internet


Please consider the environment before not printing this page.  That request asking you to kindly not print your last email might have the best of intentions for our environment, but it fails to take into account a major factor which influences the “sustainability” of your decision; the internet.  Advice related to paper and the environment will often recommend doing as much online as possible, but keeping it digital whenever you can might not be as eco-friendly as you think.  Like everything you do, working in the digital world has a carbon legacy and most shockingly the environmental impact of the internet relates directly to deforestation; just the thing you’re saving when you opt-out of the paper world.

Moving our lives online perpetuates our desire to be online. Everyone has recognised this from marketers, app developers and manufacturers who capitalise on and conflate our desire to ascend into the virtual reality. When our laptops stop working or we replace our old tablet with the latest version we create e-waste.  In the US in 2010 out of 384 million electronic units only 19% were recycled, the rest ended up in landfill letting toxic substances like mercury, lead and cadmium infect water, land and air.  But it’s not just the old equipment we need to think about, the energy used to manufacture more and more gadgets, known as grey energy, has its impact too.

These are all things to consider before you buy lots of technological equipment, but once you’ve bought you’re new ipad there’s not that much you can do, and if you’re at work it probably wouldn’t go down too well to take all computers you deem superfluous to the recycling.  The carbon footprint of the internet doesn’t stop at building the initial computer, the amount of time online and what you do online massively contribute.

When you’re browsing the internet or writing up that work report your computer is powering a hidden mass of data which uses up a lot of energy. Dark data is all the stuff which floats around on the internet and computers unaccounted for.  They’re the bits of data that get left behind; user PST files on desktops, the data on your USB stick, old versions of websites now defunct, downloads that get tucked away and forgotten about.  Dark data is like the shadow or light data (which is data in use) and it’s estimate that we consume on average 34 gigabytes a day of data, most of it being this kind of dark data.  So it’s not just having a device on which uses energy, it’s the exact tasks you engage in which drain it.

And it’s all driving deforestation

According to the ISC the growth of digital media and therefore higher demand for energy directly contribute to deforestation, whereas the paper industry doesn’t.  In a report looking into the environmental impact of “going paperless” it’s reported that,

“Internet servers and data centres are contributing to the destruction of more than 500 mountains and over 600 square miles of forest.”

So next time you notice that plea to ‘not print this email’ think about the environmental impact of staying online.

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