When you think about being more sustainable and eco-friendly, addressing your internet habits isn’t typically the first thing that comes to mind. However, the data shows that the internet is a bigger polluter than the entire aviation industry. The current estimated percentage of emissions produced by the internet is currently at 3.7% for 2023 and is set to reach 5.5% by 2026.
It is understandable that Covid-19 has been a huge accelerator into digitising more and more of what we do in society, with the rise of Zoom calls taking place, almost every business realising they need some form of digital presence, and the rise in popularity of social media, it’s no wonder the emissions from the internet are rising at a worrying pace.
But why does the internet produce so much carbon?
By far the most significant contributors of the internet emissions are the completely unseen Data centres. These are huge warehouses consisting of servers (which process the data from a website or app) and storage devices with masses of hard-drives, SSD’s etc which must all be kept switched on 24/7. However, it is the amount of heat that these massive devices emit that causes the problem. If these devices regularly get too hot, their performance will reduce, the lifespan will shorten and they may even pose a fire risk.
This means that Data centres have to deploy huge cooling systems to keep the temperature of these massive warehouses under control.
But, and here lies yet another issue with the internet, there are multiple copies of the same infrastructure dotted around the country and the globe used for back-ups and disaster recovery situations that may never be used. We can understand why this may be needed, as a 1 minute outage for a company like HSBC could be catastrophic, so there are many of these sites consuming huge quantities of energy, powered by fossil fuels just in place for the unlikely event of an outage.
Around 10 years ago, companies were exploring moving data centres to colder parts of the world (i.e Iceland were a big innovator in this) where they could use “fresh air” that gets pumped from the outside into these data centres in order to significantly reduce the artificial cooling needed. However, with the rise of local Data Protection laws, meaning that companies have to keep the data of individuals in the country they reside or collect the data in, many of these data centres are not being used.
The second biggest contributor are the network infrastructures, which again are always on, regardless of whether they are being used or not. Now, the majority of modern networking infrastructure have impressive energy management systems to power them down when activity is low but they are by no means perfect.
Then we must consider individual devices. From smartphones to laptops and home appliances, our lives are increasingly intertwined with these gadgets. Albeit they don’t compare in terms of energy consumed compared to the data centres but its the environmental impact of the manufacturing process and of waste disposal. The extraction of raw materials, manufacturing processes, and transportation all contribute to carbon emissions.
What definitely isn’t helping is that we are always being encouraged or “forced” to buy the latest and newest model and sometimes as a result of a software update, to run a certain app or for it to run efficiently and quickly.
What are the impacts on an individual level?
If we were to crudely divide the total amount of carbon dioxide 1.7 billion tonnes across the number of internet users, then we have a figure of 414 kg per person. Which is the equivalent of the average car use in the UK.
But… we are now entering an era where we are going to have to start understanding our individual impact, especially if you are a business owner, or someone that wants to sell to companies with a sustainability goal.
What can businesses do to help?
As we’ve seen lately in the news, the current government is starting to roll back future regulation about net-zero targets. However, as it currently stands the current legislation is:
Only large companies, public limited companies and some others must report their energy use and carbon emissions every year (Large companies must have an annual income of 36 million or more and over 250 employees). (Leading businesses to disclose greenhouse gas emissions – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk))
At the moment, and it’s looking unlikely with the latest news, there are no current reporting requirements for small businesses. However some may benefit from doing so voluntarily. As for example it may be important for any companies that want to sell to much larger firms (or at least have the ambition to) or to prepare for any future changes in government regulation.
There are some tools out there to find out how many emissions your business emits. We recommend an initiative called the SME climate Hub which provides a great free tool called the Business Carbon Calculator which allows you to log all of your activities on a regular basis and then shows you what your emissions are across the board.
Most small businesses don’t have data centres, or a network infrastructure that they manage themselves, they are typically dependent on the cloud services provided by Microsoft, Amazon, Google etc but what you do have control of is your website. There are two great tools out there which you are able to input your URL into and they provide you with an overall score. You can then work with a web developer to make the recommended changes to make it even more efficient and then use the information to report how much carbon your website has produced over a 12 month period.
At the moment, due to the lack of global or government regulation, there is little in place to verify the green claims of vendors and suppliers. The Green Web Foundation is an independent organisation that is based in the Netherlands and they independently scrutinise, audit and certify the various manufacturers on their claims. So if you are looking at different tech providers, they have a great directory of their certified customers. They also have a free tool where you can see if your website is run on Green or Sustainable energy.
Ecologi is a subscription service where, after you have calculated your individual or business carbon footprint, you can offset it by investing in initiatives that will remove that amount of carbon from the atmosphere. This is by no means perfect and all organisations should always focus on eliminating as much of their carbon footprint as possible but for small businesses and individuals, this is a good start to your net zero journey.
Likewise with the 1% for the planet. You can commit to donating 1% of your revenue to green causes and get certified for doing so.
What can I do to help?
Here are some of our quick solutions:
- Stop being so nice and scrap the ‘Thank you’ emails! For business users, email is by far the largest individual tech resource that has the largest impact on energy consumption and carbon emissions. Tim Berners-Lee calculated that a typical business user creates 135 kg CO2e from sending emails every year, which is the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a family car. But it should be easy to cut this down. If every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email, it could save 16,00 tonnes of carbon a year – the equivalent to taking 3000 diesel cars off the road, according to energy company, OVO. My mum would always say to me, it doesn’t cost anything to say your “pleases or thank yous” but it does if you are trying to save the planet!
- Swap the attachments for a link. The above also applies when sending attachments – the amount of times people receive the same attachment, either by CC’d or Forwarded, this duplication of data can be huge but easily resolved. It’s best to upload it to a Dropbox or One Drive and share an online link.
- Unsubscribe from irrelevant newsletters. Lastly, I’m sure we all have tons of unwanted emails, newsletters for products or services that you can’t even remember using! The average user receives 2,850 unwanted emails every year from subscriptions, which are responsible for 23Kg of CO2 . So spend some time to unsubscribe from these emails and reduce your CO2 emissions.
Text & Phone Habits…
- You don’t always need the latest phone! The second biggest contributor by consumers is the constant refreshing of phone models – either by being forced to due to updates by apps or as we know from a major manufacturer they are purposefully downgrading the performance of phones every time there is a major update. So push back and keep hold of your current device for another iteration.
- Refrain from charging your phone all night long. Phone charging overnight is by far the biggest energy consumption – it’s often completely unnecessary and usually it only takes an hour and half nowadays, so do it in the morning before work!
- Send 1 long text. We are all guilty of sending lots of small messages that could’ve been sent in one longer one. The constant sending of small messages, such as LOL, Haha, and Emojis wastes not only your time but increases your carbon emissions.Plus, if you’re not a fan of whatsapp groups – then ask your friends and colleagues to send you text messages as they are are more environmentally friendly than apps like Whatsapp.
Why does this all matter?
Because collectively, our choices have a massive effect. If you can take anything away from this, is that you will use digital services by companies that are committed to being net zero, or just send one less “Thank you” email, we can help mitigate climate change and create a more sustainable future for all.
So, now you are aware of the sheer impact the internet has on the environment and climate change and understand the steps you and your business can take to help to reduce the carbon emissions the internet produces overall.