Did you know that streaming a film online, or searching for the answer to a question, costs the environment?
Every text message or email you send; every photo you upload to the cloud or digital transfer you make, costs the environment.
We often think of the internet—which drives so many aspects of our lives—as a carbon-free cloud transferring data through the air. But the internet relies on vast physical resources. Underground cables power massive data centers, and the vast machines that transmit our searches often depend on fossil fuels.
Greenpeace estimates that the global information and technology sector consumes around seven per cent of global electricity. Video streaming is responsible for around 60 per cent of global internet traffic in 2015, and is projected to reach 80 per cent by 2020.
“The internet is an invisible machine,” said Mark Radka, head of UN Environment's energy and climate branch. “We don’t see the massive infrastructure that powers our online activity, and most of the time, we are far removed from these processes. That means we don’t mentally connect their use with the environmental impacts.”
Bigger, but is it better?
The internet creates four major areas for energy demand: data centres, communication networks, end-user devices like mobile phones and computers, and manufacturing—making equipment for the above.
Some innovative solutions are being explored to increase data centre efficiency, and save power from traditional air conditioning. Google for example, reports that its 14 data centres—powering Gmail, YouTube and Search across four continents—use 50 per cent less energy than typical ones.
Compared with five years ago, they deliver seven times the computing power with the same electrical energy, according to Google. Alibaba, meanwhile, uses natural lake water to cool servers at one centre, and is exploring a wind tower to cool down servers at another.
Yet the internet is probably the largest manmade thing we have built—and it’s only getting bigger. Some researchers anticipate a threefold increase in global internet traffic by 2020: it’s time to find other ways to manage our digital diets.
“Just being aware that what we do online has an impact in the real world is a good start,” said Radka. “When companies are pressured by their customers, they prioritize environmental accountability and sustainable sourcing.”
Amid global concerns about climate change, customers are increasingly looking for clean sources of energy, which is driving down the costs of renewable energy.
Competing brands drive sustainability up their agenda. Internet giants like Apple, Facebook and Google have committed to sourcing 100 per cent of their energy from renewables, reducing waste and improving their energy efficiency.
Putting data to work for the environment
Much of this improvement is down to more efficient processing and intelligence.
Erick Litswa, UN Environment’s Indicator Reporting Information Systems deployment manager, says that when it comes to improving efficiency, the devil is in the detail—or at least the analysis.
Data—and the ability to analyse and make sense of it—is becoming more valuable. Sharing trends that cut through the data noise are part of our collective responsibility, and that is where big internet companies can benefit the global community, Litswa notes.
“Twenty years ago, someone searching for an answer to a question might share it with 10 people in the village. Today, algorithms and artificial intelligence hone in on answers from all around the world in seconds, cutting through the noise to find the best ones.
“This has made data fetching more efficient. Sharing this data could have big collective benefits for the environment. For example, satellite imagery can help us track deforestation, or where water is being leaked or lost, helping to make water use more efficient.”
Some organizations go further. The search engine Ecosia says it offsets the carbon it takes to complete searches by planting trees in specific communities. But even carbon offsetting schemes do not tackle overconsumption.
For that, we need to use less energy. And while current trends look set in the opposite direction, we can all take steps to limit our digital cravings. Taking a digital detox is as good for the planet as it probably is for you.
At the United Nations Environment Assembly, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing towards a sustainable future for our planet