The Internet’s Carbon Footprint Issue Isn’t Tied to Individuals

The Internet’s Carbon Footprint Issue Isn’t Tied to Individuals
The new study's authors found that simply playing videos in standard definition instead of in HD can also cut the environmental impact of streaming by 86%. (Photo: Greg Baker, Getty Images)

Video conferencing is putting a lot of stress on us, forcing us to show our colleagues the insides of our apartments, learn new social norms (is “mute yourself” a rude thing to say?), and remember that there is still a deadly global pandemic ravaging the world. It may be putting stress on the planet, too.

A new study, published in the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recycling on Thursday, analysed the environmental impact of online video, including meeting applications like Zoom. The authors say that even though the world saw a record drop in carbon pollution amid covid-19 lockdowns this year, all the increased time we’re spending video chatting, as well as video streaming on platforms like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, under quarantine is taking a huge toll on the planet. This suggests we should all do our part by cutting back on our online activity. But the study’s underlying assumptions are flawed. Though internet infrastructure does indeed use up natural resources, changing our individual online usage might not really have much of an impact.

The authors took on this research because studies show that due to covid-19 quarantine restrictions, internet traffic in many countries has risen by some 20% since March, so the resources associated with supporting all that traffic have increased proportionally, too.

“Processing and transmitting data take energy,” Kaveh Madani, visiting fellow at the Yale University’s MacMillan Centre and the study’s lead author, said in an email. “So, each action you take when you’re online takes some energy.”

If we keep streaming and videoconferencing at this rate, the study says that by the end of 2021, the carbon footprint of streaming and video chatting alone could grow by as much as as 34.3 million tons of carbon dioxide. It would take a 185,443-square-kilometre swath of forest — an area twice the size of Indiana — to sequester all that out of the atmosphere. The additional water — commonly used for cooling data centres — needed to process and transmit all that data could also fill more than 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, and would need as much land as the entire city of Los Angeles.

Is this all something to consider before scheduling your next video call on HouseParty? The authors think so, since their findings suggest that using the internet less could help conserve precious resources. But though logging off is probably a good idea for other reasons, Jonathan Koomey, an energy and climate researcher who runs a sustainable IT consultancy and did not work on the new report, is not so sure about those conclusions.

For instance, the study says that simply playing videos in standard definition instead of HD can also cut the environmental impact of streaming by 86%, and that shutting the camera off during a video call can reduce the call’s carbon, water, and land use footprints by 96%. But Koomey said that merely using more data doesn’t actually proportionally increase the amount of energy associated with using the internet.

“The authors appear to have assumed that if the use of video conferencing or streaming goes up that there will be a proportionate increase in electricity use, land use, carbon emissions, and water use,” he said in an email. “That’s not the way many parts of the [information and communications technology] network work, however.”

Koomey explained that most internet infrastructure doesn’t have much “energy proportionality” built into it. “If the equipment is just sitting there doing nothing or actually transferring data at maximum rates, the energy use doesn’t change much,” he said. “Think of it like a train. There is a large ‘fixed’ energy use of moving the train, but if you step on the train, there’s a very tiny change in the total mass and energy use. That’s how lots of the IT network behaves when it comes to changes in load.”

He also said the researchers estimates of how much energy the internet uses were a bit dicey. The new report’s authors calculated that the electricity it takes for data centres to process one hour of video-conferencing or video streaming can emit up to 1,000 grams of carbon, depending on kind of power those data centres run on. (For context, a gallon of gasoline burned from driving a car emits about 8,887 grams of carbon dioxide.) The production of all that energy for an hour-long show or call also uses up to 12 litres of water, and demands an amount of land the size of an iPad mini, the report says. All these estimates are based on a 2018 study on the energy intensity of transmitting online data.

But Koomey, who worked on the 2018 paper that the report cites, said the new calculations aren’t quite right. He said the authors picked out a single point estimate of average energy used for data transmission — 0.06 kilowatt hours per gigabyte of data — but the 2018 study also includes another, considerably lower estimate. The average of those estimates is much lower.

Those figures were also based on 2015 numbers, and since then, there have been massive improvements in energy efficiency in the internet sector. Based on those discrepancies, he said the new study’s estimation of the energy used to transmit a gigabyte of data is actually “less than 0.01 [kilowatt hours], which is a factor of 6 lower than what these authors use for network data transfers.”

Shelie Miller, an environmental engineer at the University of Michigan, also noted that the increases in internet use that the new study discusses may have actually replaced even less environmentally sustainable activities. A Zoom call may not be carbon-neutral, but it may allow you to avoid making a car trip or even taking a flight to attend an in-person meeting.

“There are likely net environmental benefits to be obtained by working from home and reducing worker commutes,” she said.

But even if the calculations aren’t quite right, it’s true that the internet relies on the electric grid, which in most places runs on fossil fuels. Even in places where renewable energy powers the grid, using the internet isn’t without impacts — as the study notes, Brazil uses 70% hydropower-based energy, so the carbon associated with internet infrastructure is much lower than the global average, but hydropower still uses water.

Gary Cook, the global climate campaigns director at the environmental advocacy organisation Stand.Earth who didn’t work on the study, said there are ways we can better manage the resources associated with making the internet work.

“We should be building the internet infrastructure in a way that’s going to maximise use of renewables…and we can make choices about data centres to use less water, especially making sure we’re putting them in locations that aren’t going run into water scarcity issues which may get even worse during the climate crisis [because of ] drought,” he said.

Though the new study makes the case that we should change our personal internet use to address the internet’s carbon footprint and resource usage, what we really need to address are the underlying systemic issues. So instead of cancelling your next Zoom call in an attempt to save the planet, maybe focus on calling on elected officials to decarbonise the grid. Individually using less data probably won’t make a dent in the internet’s environmental footprint, but those bigger changes certainly could.