The internet’s Dirty Secret

The internet’s Dirty Secret

August 16, 2021

By no means is this intended to be a guide and the scope is way too big. It’s a collection of some of our thoughts and facts. It’s a call to shape our approach to technology with environmental sustainability and sustainable innovation in mind.


UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is to take place in Glasgow, Scotland. The conference is being talked about as the world’s “last best chance” by many. While the eyes of the world have been trained on dealing with the pandemic, the significance of the potentially cataclysmic scenario in terms of climate emergency we are in, is not diminished.

We have been hearing about the enormous carbon footprint of the internet. If it were a country, the internet would be on track to become the world’s fourth largest emitter of CO2 after the US, China, and India and would rank sixth overall for electricity usage. Whilst aviation and oil & gas sectors have attracted a lot of scrutiny, technology has gone under the radar. We tend to hear more about the environmental cost of fossil fuel emissions than negative impact on environment by cryptocurrency mining, electronic waste and data storage.

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” — Robert Swan, Historian

This article takes a look at how the technology sector, and more specifically the internet and the digital world, can have a negative impact on the environment. We’ll then offer some insight into how as consumers and designers we can help reduce carbon footprint through sustainability-oriented practices and sustainable user experience.

Technology has proven to be most efficient in making our daily tasks more accessible and internet and the digital sphere now includes billions of devices used by users every single day. With every search, every click, or streamed video sets, triggers several servers to work — a simple search on Google initiates a chain of reactions beyond your home to 6-8 data centers around the world — consuming very real energy resources.  

For consumers alone, keeping carbon footprint to a minimum can be extremely challenging. Trying to slow the pace of technological advances may seem counter-intuitive. With technology connecting everyone and continuing to improve the quality of life, it is about being responsible in the way we use technology. Those who are tasked with designing user experiences, software or technology, can play a crucial role here by encouraging users to pivot towards taking measures to ensure that our user experience is as green as possible.

“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
— Marshall McLuhan

It is advisable when designing user interfaces, to take steps to making it more accessible, making content better readable and user-friendly navigation, performance optimisation in websites and applications, and this could greatly contribute to reducing energy consumption.

How much energy is needed to…

…a data centre?

A single router consumes 10,000 watts (10 kW) of electricity. Estimates of annual data centre electricity usage range from 200 terawatt hours to 500 TWh. 200 TWh equates to 200,000,000 megawatte hours and to put this into context, 100 megawatts is enough to power around 80,000 U.S. households.  In fact, in addition to the consumption required to run the servers, the electronic circuits must be cooled using air conditioning.

… a simple internet search?

A simple search on the internet represents 3.4 Wh (0.8g of CO2 emissions) and this rises to 10g after an internet search producing just five results. If a user makes an average of 2.6 internet searches per day, this user can be extrapolated to be emitting 9.9 kg of CO2 equivalent per year.

… a year of browsing the internet?

When browsing the internet, an average user accounts for about 365 kWh electricity and 2,900 litres of water, and in terms of CO2 emissions this is equivalent to traveling a whopping 1,400 km by car.

… a year of consumption of ICT

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) account for 6 to 10% of global electricity consumption, or 4% of our greenhouse gas emissions, and this figure increases by 5 to 7% each year!

From a web-hosting perspective, it makes sense to use a data centre close to your users if you are to think from an environmental sustainability perspective. Selecting a data centre close to your target audience will help reduce energy consumption greatly. For example, you might find a cheap web-hosting package from a US based hosting company, but if your target audience is in the UK or Europe then energy will be unnecessarily wasted transmitting data across the Atlantic. Whilst increasing the amount of renewable energy data centres use is just one way to curb the carbon footprint, there’s a long way to go in order to offset the exponential growth in internet traffic, experts say.

In broad terms, the concept of sustainable innovation is very relevant here. Whilst there is no universally accepted definition as such, ‘sustainability-driven’ innovation is broadly accepted as the creation of new market space, products and services or processes driven by social, environmental or sustainability issues.

From a software engineering perspective some of the emerging themes of sustainable software engineering need to be embraced by anyone developing software. The way software is designed, developed, and deployed can have a major impact on energy consumption, for example streamlined code can not only could contribute to better user experience but also reduced energy consumption. We believe that anyone building, deploying or managing applications should pay attention to principles of Sustainable Software Engineering. Accordingly, organisations should include software in their sustainability efforts. Sustainable software enables you to deliver changes to the customer more quickly with a lower likelihood of bugs, a decrease of the total cost of ownership of applications, and increased business agility thus offering opportunities for better returns in the process.

Leadership and innovative thinking are critical for developing a low-carbon economy and we all have a role to play in helping reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and doing our bit to address huge challenges posed by climate change. 

Written by Shane Herath

Key References:

  • UN World Commission on Environment and Development
  • Internet Health Report by Mozilla
  • Sibelga, Energy Guide
  • Climate Central
  • Energy Innovation, Policy & Technology
  • London Inc ~ the Sustainable Innovation Ecosystem

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