How Sustainable is the Internet?

When thinking of the internet and digital services like Netflix or Google Drive, most people usually think of it as something that is abstract. Something that is in the air that lacks matter. Therefore, most people rarely reflect on the climate impact of my use of the internet.
But the truth is that the internet and the growing amount of digital services require a lot of electricity. So I thought we would take a look at how sustainable the internet really is.

Data centers consume a lot of power

When you click on a series on Netflix or a youtube video, you put several servers in data centers around the world in operation. These data centers consume electricity – a lot of electricity.
Today, data centers alone account for about 2% of total electricity consumption globally. And that number is only expected to increase with digital development.
China, which is a major country in terms of technology and digital development, operates its data centers on 73% energy from coal power, according to a report from Greenpeace.

Amazon, Google, and Netflix

Amazon, which is a major provider of cloud storage for other companies and owns many data centers, has said that their data centers will run on 100% renewable energy by 2030. Today, only 40% of electricity comes from renewables and Amazon released released 44.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide last year.
Google has estimated that each search you make through their platform generates approximately 0.2 grams of carbon dioxide emissions when you include the energy needed for all the cables, routers and servers required for everything to work.
They also estimate that when you watch a youtube video, about 1 gram of carbon dioxide is generated per 10 minutes of streamed video.
Since 2007, Google has been climate-neutral in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. However, this does not mean that their data centers are run entirely on renewable energy. Google instead uses a type of climate compensation. So even though a large part of their electricity comes from renewable sources, they sometimes have to top up with other sources, which they then compensate by paying for renewable electricity that can be used on the electricity grid by others.

Google aims for 100% of the electricity their business consumes to come from renewable sources. They also use artificial intelligence and other innovation to reduce their electricity consumption.

In a report from Greenpeace from 2017 where various apps and their underlying companies were rated based on the use of renewable electricity, Netflix received only D in the rating (Facebook and Youtube received top ratings, A, and Amazon Prime C).

Video streaming accounts for 60% of Internet traffic and Netflix viewing accounts for 35% of total Internet traffic. According to Greenpeace’s 2017 analysis, only 17% of Netflix’s electricity came from renewable sources in 2017 and 80% came from nuclear, gas and coal power.

Netflix compensates for the emissions generated by their electricity consumption.

Some data centers are part of the solution

A big reason why the internet consumes so much electricity is that data centers and their servers have to be cooled down. Building data centers underground or in countries with colder climates is, therefore, part of the solution.

Facebook has a large data center in northern Sweden and many other companies like Amazon and Microsoft have established themselves in nordic parts.

Since many northern countries are safe and stable countries with few natural disasters, colder temperatures, a lot of space, and good infrastructure, the data center and operation of these can become a new, more environmentally friendly, and future-focused industry in places where traditional industries have closed again.

What can we as consumers do?

As a private person, spending a little less time streaming youtube or spending less time online may not have such a big effect on your overall climate footprint.

There are those who have debated that we should talk “surf shame” in the same way we talk flight shame.

I think we need to talk about this and highlight that our activities on the internet, and how the internet is evolving, will have a greater and greater impact if we do not ensure the development of renewable energy sources at the same rate as we expand data centers.

We also need to pay attention to these issues and show the technology companies that this is a priority for us as consumers. All companies should take responsibility for how and where their data is stored.

Of course, you can also make some active consumer decisions by choosing which cloud and streaming services you use and examining these companies’ climate reports.

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