The environmental cost of the internet

Past weekend I had a discussion with my father about the climate march of the preceding Friday, I was talking about how the size of the march was simply impressive, and how it was quite inspiring to see so many people actively standing up to demand action on climate change. My father and I started to discuss what factors influence climate change and who should be held responsible. At one point we arrived on the subject of the internet, specifically the enviromental cost of the internet, my father mentioned that websites like Facebook consume significant amounts of energy and space to store the data that we all create, and that it thus has a significant carbon footprint. It was an interesting point, and although it had come up in my thoughts at times, I have never researched it in depth, because we are often not actively aware about the enviromental impact of objects and services around us, because we do not actively experience the effects, at least not in the same way we experience the impact of car fumes or plastic waste. This week’s blogpost seems like a great place to start looking into it.

The internet has become a dominant pressence in our daily lives, so pressent that an article by Forbes reported that we currently produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day, and this is only increasing as more and more people get access to the internet and internet speed increases. To handle our increased access to the internet, datacentres are needed to process and save the content we create and visit. Through research by the academic journal Nature we know that datacentres by the five biggest data conglomarates currently use as much energy in a year as certain countries with a relative low energy consumption such as Iran, as well as contribute to 1% of the worldwide energy demand. When including all other forms of ICT infrastructure, this rises to 2%, which is equal to the enviromental impact of the aviation industry. The Nature article also predicts that internet usage keeps rising as it is now, in just 11 years data storage and ICT in general could make up a minimum of 20% of our energy uses.

This obviously raises some enviromental concern, as this energy will have to come from somewhere, and while many ICT corporations are working towards reducing the energy usage, to save costs and the enviroment, inventions like cryptocurencies and cloud storage do keep taking up extensive amounts of energy (with Bitcoin mining producing as much CO2 emissions as a million cars). Should we really dedicate so much of our enegry resourses to ICT and digitalisation? Are there means to drastically decrease the energy consumption of online data storage and ICT in general? Is our current model of ICT infrastructure sustainable and what would need to change and how would it need to change to make it efficient? I don’t have the answers to this at the moment, but I do believe they’re important questions to take into consideration when talking about and shaping policies of digital infrastructure and the future of digitalisation. How do we find a middle ground that doesn’t require us to give up on what the internet and digitalisation has given us, that doesn’t require us to become primitivists? These should be important questions that we keep in mind when discussing digital media