Ask an environmental expert. What is the internet’s carbon footprint?
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V:then it comes our growing carbon footprint, it’s easy to blame cars, agriculture or factories. But what about the internet? Since the onset of COVID-19, by some estimates, screen time has increased by 60 to 80 percent for most adults.1: and it turns out that there’s a lesser-known effect of all those extra hours spent watching Netflix. To find out how our digital habits affect the environment, we turned to Professor Laura Marks of Simon Fraser University, who studies the environmental impact of streaming.
What happens behind the scenes when we stream audio or video?
There is a material side to streaming that we don’t see. We have our devices in front of us, but there are data centers and servers that store the files we watch or listen to.2: as well as the underground and satellite networks that transmit them, all of which are out of sight but require large amounts of electricity to operate. That’s bad for the environment, because about 80 percent of our world’s energy currently comes from fossil fuels. Although Canada uses many renewable energy sources, many of the servers and networks we access are located in countries that do not.
How does the internet’s carbon footprint compare to notorious polluters like airlines?
One estimate found that greenhouse gas emissions created by data centers, networks and our devices, including phones and computers, account for 3.8 percent of the global total and are expected to grow. The airline industry, by comparison, is responsible for about 2.1 percent.
When live meetings or events are replaced by video conferencing, is energy saved?
Many studies have been done on how online activity can affect energy use instead of traveling. At first there is a downward trend, but as new habits emerge, we begin to grow. For example, people who attend an online conference instead of flying there are more likely to choose vacation destinations that require a plane to get to. Likewise, people who don’t commute are more likely to use their cars for other things. People tend to change their habits, so there’s no guarantee that more streaming services will lead to less energy use.
There has been talk of achieving net neutrality or an equal internet for all. Is this a sustainable idea?
Net neutrality is problematic because one of its goals is to ensure that every household can stream in high definition.3: The higher the resolution, the larger the storage and the more network capacity needed. That’s what will send energy consumption through the roof, especially as global consumption expands. It is already estimated that by 2030 all types of internet use could account for 8 percent of global carbon emissions.4:
What would have to happen to change that trajectory?
A shift to non-fossil fuel energy sources, but I don’t think it will happen fast enough. Instead, we need to change our habits. One of the easiest things people can do to combat Internet overload is to use a lower resolution, which can be perfectly practical for YouTube for music or streaming TV shows for kids.
For music and movies that you will listen to and watch repeatedly, it is a good practice to purchase the file as a single download or purchase a physical copy. There’s been a renewed interest in vinyl and CDs among young people who didn’t have them the first time around, so I’m really hoping the cool factor of physical media kicks in.
1. A Sandvine report found that global Internet traffic increased by almost 40 percent in the first few months of the pandemic.
2. As of last year, Netflix had 17,000 servers spread across 158 countries.
3. According to Comparitech, 91.9 percent of Canadian Internet users stream TV shows and movies.
4. By 2040, it is expected to reach 14 percent.
As Alec Tesari said: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.