Is the internet a hidden driver of climate change?

Ari Howard

Sep 18, 2021 — 4 min read

Streaming one hour of Netflix a week for a year consumes more energy than the yearly output of two new refrigerators.

White smoke pouring out of power plant

When we think of “going green,” we think of recycling, turning off the lights when leaving a room, using cold instead of hot water when doing laundry, using a reusable water bottle, purchasing an electric car, using solar panels and more.

Those of us looking to go green have made small alterations in nearly every facet of our lives to help mitigate climate change and promote a sustainable future.

But there’s one major aspect of our lives we tend to forget about when considering our personal contribution to carbon emissions: our internet usage. 

The internet’s carbon footprint

According to The New Republic, the internet will generate 20% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2030 if we continue to use it at its current rate. This would put the internet right behind the U.S., China and India for greatest environmental impact.  

Internet consumption adds up far quicker than we realize. For instance, The New Republic’s website itself uses around 5.10g of carbon per page view. And surprising to most, streaming one hour of Netflix each week consumes more energy annually than the output of two new refrigerators. The average household watches far more than one hour of Netflix each week. 

According to the BBC’s Smart Guide to Climate Change, “​​Although the energy needed for a single internet search or email is small, approximately 4.1 billion people, or 53.6% of the global population, now use the internet. Those scraps of energy, and the associated greenhouse gases emitted with each online activity, can add up.”

Energy usage requirements for common internet activities

How does the internet pollute?

The carbon transition think tank The Shift Project released a 2019 report looking at the world’s use of online video content. “Intensive use is now made of online video. Stored in data centers, videos are transferred to our terminals (computers, smartphones, connected TVs, etc.) via networks (cables, optical fiber, modems, mobile network antennae, etc.): all these processes require electricity whose production consumes resources and usually involves CO2 emissions.” 

The report found that 10 hours of high definition video comprises more data than all the articles in English on Wikipedia in text format.

Is there a solution?

Addressing the environmental impact of the internet, our devices and the use of video would mean having to make major alterations to how we currently function as a society, as well as the implementation of worldwide regulations.

We are currently focused on solving the digital divide, which means connecting all Americans to high-speed internet so that they don’t fall behind in society. But experts are recommending that we use slower internet speeds and limit our daily use of the internet in order to mitigate climate change. 

How do we reconcile these two goals? Our society has become increasingly digital, but experts are reporting that our use of technology is not sustainable for the planet. 

We are already beginning to witness the growing challenges of maintaining a digital world as the consequences of climate change have become more evident. For instance, in the Western states of the  U.S., internet companies are struggling to keep their customers connected during heat waves and wildfires as components melt or become damaged during climate events. 

This means that our expectation as a society to be connected to the internet at all times of the day may be unrealistic. Either we as a society choose to change our culture or the environment will do it for us. 

Tim Frick, CEO of Mightbytes, an eco-conscious digital agency summed it up

We have to rethink how we get our information and how we access it.

Tim Frick

Will the new “going green” mean using slower internet speeds and disconnecting the Wi-Fi for certain parts of the day? Likely not, but these are the conversations we need to begin having. 

A sustainable digital future, therefore, has several components to it. It means reducing our carbon footprint to a low enough degree to prevent the worst case scenarios of climate change from occurring. 

This will require investing in environmentally-friendly materials, such as fiber optic technology. It will also require reducing how much internet-heavy actions companies are able to perform, such as including advertisements on websites or collecting personal data from its users. 

But sustainability also means providing equal access to technology and ensuring that no one is excluded from the digital world. It’s a balance between limiting individual consumption and investing in the right materials, while also connecting all Americans to the internet. 

The digital world has accelerated at a nearly unimaginable rate. We now must reconcile our dependency on the internet with the fundamental truth that resources are finite and the environment cannot permanently sustain our rate of acceleration.

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Illustration of a father and daughter in a living room. The father is sitting in an armchair and reading a newspaper, and the daughter is playing with a toy on the floor.
Ari Howard

Written by:

Ari Howard

Associate Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content

Ari Howard is a staff writer Healthline and spent two years as a writer on the Allconnect team. She specialized in broadband news and studies, particularly relating to internet access, digital safety, broadband-… Read more

Robin Layton

Edited by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

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