Opinion: Measuring the Internet's environmental footprint

Most of us are more connected to the Internet than ever before.

By Mike Gifford

Not only do we have phones, tablets, game consoles, and televisions that are connected , but we also use the net for shopping, civic engagement, social and archival purposes. New appliances, cars and devices use the Internet without many of us even knowing it. So much of our lives are tangled up in the Web, and all indications are that this trend is increasing by leaps and bounds.

Many people are concerned about the social impacts of this pervasive presence, but almost no one is talking about the environmental ones.

Sadly, just as it takes energy to transport products, it takes energy to transport bits. Although it is harder to see the carbon footprint of a website than it is of a car, it still has a significant environmental impact.

According to the UN International Telecommunication Union, the number of Internet users has increased from 738 million in 2000 to 3.2 billion in 2015. Many of these users will be using relatively low powered smartphones, but it now represents a significant portion of the human population, and adoption is still growing quickly. 

The web has gotten considerably more complicated in the last decade, requiring more processing power on both the server and on whatever device you are browsing on. Companies are also now collecting considerably more information on user behaviour and employing this data to help shape your user experience. Product suggestions by companies like Amazon can be quite convenient, but also depend on a great deal of behavioral data. This data needs to be stored and often processed inreal time to provide effective solutions.

We all love videos, photos, interactive sites and we can get them fast thanks to high-speed Internet. Websites are therefore being built to maximize our usage. This requires more computing power to manage, and thus uses more electricity. Videos are a good example of this as they take more disk space to store, need to transfer many more bits than either a photo or audio file, and they use a lot more electricity from the device that is browsing the file.

The Internet is ultimately a massive network of computers around the globe that are operating 24/7. These are generally housed in data centres that need to be kept cool to offset the heat produced by thousands of other computers. By 2020, NRDC has predicted that US data centres alone will consume 140 billion kilowatt-hours annually, the equivalent annual output of 50 power plants. 

As huge as this is, we also need to remember the power consumption of the devices that we use to access the Internet. Most of us have gotten rid of the old CRT monitors and are using more modern LCD screens which are more energy-efficient. That said, the screens are larger and people have more of them. Even when they're turned off, if they are still plugged in many are still using electricity.

As users browsing the Internet, it's important to remember to do the little things like turn off and unplug your laptop when you are not using it. If you have a website, there are things that can be done to optimize it so that it takes less energy to browse it. One of the biggest things that we can do is encourage the services we use to have their servers hosted in data centres that are powered by solar or wind.

The 2015 Greenpeace Click Clean report has graded the environmental responsiveness of some of the biggest companies on the Internet. Amazon(C), Apple (A), eBay (D), Facebook (A), Google (B), IBM (B), Microsoft(C), Salesforce(B), and Yahoo (B) are among the companies rated. 

As consumers, we can seek greater transparency about the environmental footprint of the on-line services that we use. We may not be able to turn off their servers, but we can help make energy efficiency a higher priority.

- Mike Gifford is the owner of OpenConcept Consulting Inc.