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Alex Greenfield

Jun 13, 2023 • Energy

Clicks, Likes, and Streams: The Hidden Carbon Footprint of Our Glorious Digital Lives

A Peek Behind the Green Curtain of the Internet

Clicks, Likes, and Streams: The Hidden Carbon Footprint of Our Glorious Digital Lives

The internet. It’s that magical place where cat videos reign supreme, where we argue with strangers about pineapple on pizza, and where, in the year 2023, we still can’t find a reliable way to know if someone is sarcastically typing. But did you ever stop to think about how our Netflix binges and endless scrolling sessions impact the planet?

Surprisingly, despite being largely invisible, the internet's carbon footprint is comparable to that of the aviation industry. Yes, you heard it right. Each time you stream another episode of "Squid Game," you’re figuratively burning jet fuel. Feel guilty yet?

From Bytes to Emissions: How it Works

So how does your harmless kitten GIF or your ten-hour 'Lo-Fi Beats to Study to' playlist contribute to CO2 emissions? Well, those adorable feline antics and soothing tunes have to be stored somewhere, and that somewhere is a data center. These data centers are like the internet’s version of a public storage unit, except they're crammed with servers instead of forgotten furniture and boxes of old high school diaries.

And let's not forget, these data centers need to be cooled down (because servers hate getting hot under the collar), which is another energy expense. Add to this the energy it takes to transmit the data across the world, and your harmless internet use starts to look a lot less green.

The Carbon Toll: Some Unnerving Numbers

As of now, data centers contribute around 0.3% to global carbon emissions. But when you factor in the energy used by all devices connected to the internet and their manufacture, the figure jumps to about 3.7% - that’s a whopping 1.4 billion tons of CO2 per year, which is roughly equivalent to Russia’s annual carbon emissions.

On an individual level, a simple email is estimated to produce around 4 grams of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). An email with a large attachment can produce 50 grams. Now, consider the average office worker sends around 40 business emails per day. That's approximately 64,000 grams or 64 kilograms of CO2e per year - all for something as simple as "See attachment. Best, [Your Name]".

A Green Internet: Fact or Fiction?

Before you throw your smartphone out of the window and move to a cave, it's worth mentioning that it's not all doom and gloom. Many tech companies are starting to take the internet’s carbon footprint seriously. Renewable energy is powering more and more data centers, while advancements in server design and cooling systems are improving their energy efficiency.

Plus, the rollout of 5G could make the transmission of data much more energy-efficient than it is today. And don’t forget, the digitization of many services also saves a lot of carbon in other ways, such as reducing the need for physical transportation.

So, next time you’re about to engage in a YouTube deep dive or fire off a quick email, remember that everything in the digital world has a real-world impact. But as technology and renewable energy continue to improve, we can hope to enjoy our online lives without costing the Earth.

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