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Internet pollution: how can its impact be reduced?

internet pollution

Internet pollution is defined as all digital actions emitting greenhouse gases. In fact, this negative external use of new technologies tends to be unknown by consumers. Nevertheless, the digital world represents a substantial environmental impact and creates a large carbon footprint: 4% of all greenhouse gases.


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What is internet pollution and what it its impact?

impact of internet

Digital technology has a significant impact on our carbon footprint and has consequences on the environment. Due to its intangible appearance, digital technology is usually seen as a tool without any direct impact on the environment. However, digital technology truly is tangible and depends on physical infrastructure such as data centres and kilometres of cables used for transmission antennas.

There are two types of internet pollution:

  1. Pollution related to data centres and network infrastructure;
  2. Pollution related to consumer equipment.

How much CO2 does the internet produce?This sector is currently responsible for around 4% of global greenhouse gases and the large increase in its use suggests that this carbon footprint will double by 2025.

Source: BBC Smart Guide to Climate Change.

Digital pollution of our electronic equipment

electronic equipment

The underlying weight of all-natural resources necessary to manufacture a product, known as the ecological rucksack of a digital object, generates substantial carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Due to the extraction of raw materials and the manufacturing process in developing countries, the manufacturing phase of an electronic device is what consumes the most energy and emits the most CO2. In fact, developing countries produce their electricity mainly from coal, a natural resource with a substantial environmental impact when mined.

And lastly, the transport phase is added to the balance.

Paradoxically, the less materials we require, the more materials we use. Also, the smaller the devices, the larger the environmental impact.

In the same way, the manufacturing of sophisticated technological equipment requires certain processes and rare metals such as tantalum and tungsten. However, these minerals are at the centre of armed conflicts, especially in Africa. For this reason, minerals extracted for their use in manufacturing of digital equipment are known as "conflict minerals".

The negative impact of using the internet

carbon footprint

From the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the numerous ensuing lockdowns, there has been an exponential increase in the use of video transmission (streaming) all over the world. Despite the many erroneous assumptions estimating the CO2 emissions for watching 30 minutes of video streaming on Netflix, the climatic impact of streaming video continues to be relatively modest. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), watching an hour of video streaming on Netflix entails emissions of 36gCO2 (keeping in mind that a trip by airplane from London to New York is the equivalent of 1.3 tonnes of CO2).

The low carbon footprint of streaming video content can be explained due to the rapid improvement in the energy efficiency of data centres, networks and devices. But the slowing of efficiency gains, the effects of outbreaks, and the new demand for emerging technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, is leading to a growing concern due to general environmental impacts in the sector in the coming years.

As they are data factories that store thousands of IT servers, data centres are usually considered to be energy devourers.

How much video and streaming do we watch?According to data published by media watchdog, Ofcom, Britons spent around a third of their waking hours watching TV and online video content in 2020 - an average of 5 hours and 40 minutes a day.

What consumes the most energy in a data centre?

Data centres are storage centres of digital information. Network infrastructure and data centres are responsible for half of all digital pollution. Searches in search engines require the grid and data centres.

At a data centre, air conditioning is the most expensive element in terms of energy. That is one of the reasons why Facebook has transferred its servers to Nordic countries like Sweden or Canada, close to various hydroelectric plants.

In 2021, the Danish site Data Center Map counted more than 4,700 data centres in 126 countries and over 300 transoceanic cables which extend a network of over one million kilometres.

Since 2010, Greenpeace encourages actors on the web to supply their data centres using renewable energy. Facebook and Google have also joined this pledge. Netflix, Spotify and Twitter work worst according to the study “Clicking Clean” compiled by Greenpeace and published in 2017.

Discover the Clicking Clean report from Greenpeace

5 tips to reduce digital pollution in our daily life

Today, digital pollution is equivalent to commercial air travel pollution. How can we act against digital pollution? What are the good habits to adopt to limit our digital footprint and promote the sustainable development of the digital ecosystem?

Preserve your equipment for longer

Buy second-hand products which tend to be cheaper and less polluting. Choose low energy consumption products.

It is crucial to avoid unnecessary substitution of digital equipment and to favour repair over substitution in case of damage.

Limit energy consumption of electrical appliances

Don’t leave your devices on all the time and turn off routers as frequently as possible. On your telephone, deactivate the GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth functions when not in use. You can also put them in airplane mode.

Watch videos in an eco-responsible way

To limit digital pollution from video streaming, opt for downloads over video streaming and avoid using 4G to play videos. It is also possible to block automatic playing of videos on social media and adjusting the quality of videos on YouTube. In fact, watching low definition videos saves bandwidth, lower your resolution to 144p as soon as possible.

Empty your mailbox

Pollution linked to e-mail is known as "latent pollution". This pollution is due to the storage of messages that require servers, as each e-mail is saved in three copies and, therefore, on at least three different servers for security reasons.

In order to minimise the impact of your mailbox, it is important to regularly classify and file your e-mails to avoid unnecessary storage in data centres. Furthermore, avoid sending attachment files to many recipients and cancel subscriptions to any newsletters you no longer read.

Internet pollution and emailsResearch by Cleanfox showed that if all Internet users the UK deleted their useless emails they received in 2020, it would save more than 2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. To put that into perspective, that's the same as 1.3 million polluting cars.

Download the "Carbonalyser" extension

The French association The Shift Project has developed the free extension Carbonalyser which allows you to measure your digital pollution when surfing the web. The Carbonalyser extension translates your browsing into electrical consumption and CO2 emissions.

Carbonalyser takes into account electrical consumption of the terminal used, the infrastructure of the grid and the data centre which intervenes in the transfer of data. With this information, the association intends to inform users about digital pollution.

Discover more practical guides on protecting the environment, reducing your carbon footprint, and fighting global warming.

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