Footprints on the track: How guidance data can reduce the carbon burden of the Internet

• The carbon footprint of the Internet, and thus its contribution to climate change, is likely to grow significantly in the near future.

• Carbon emissions from Internet use can be reduced to a fraction if traffic is moved across countries and networks that use low-emission electricity.

• SCION’s Internet architecture allows users to identify and choose the paths that are more environmentally friendly, motivating network operators to attract traffic by becoming greener.

The Internet consumes electricity in different places: on our devices, in data centers, and in the communications networks that transmit data. With the widespread use of the Internet today, the total electricity consumption of its infrastructure (networks and data centers, but not consumer devices) is large, about 500 TWh per year or 2.5% of worldwide electricity consumption. Moreover, as the volume of Internet traffic is steadily increasing, this energy consumption could see an eightfold increase by 2030. As electricity production still emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases (475 grams of CO2 equivalent per year). kilowatt-hours over the global average), the growth of internet traffic is a serious climate change concern: if projections are correct, the internet will be responsible for an additional 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2030, which is equivalent to emissions of 2 Carbon dioxide in Russia for 2019.

On the right track to reduce emissions

Different ways of providing Internet service affect the climate to significantly different scales: for example, when connecting between Zurich and London, seven times less carbon emissions are produced if the communication units travel through France, rather than through Germany and the Netherlands. The reason: Electricity is produced with much lower carbon emissions in France than in the other two countries, and even imports do not cancel out this difference. However, the carbon intensity of each country varies greatly over time: due to variable renewable energy plants (solar and wind), electricity consumption in Germany can sometimes be quite satisfied with these low-emission sources, making the connection across Germany More attractive from an environmental point of view during these periods. It is also possible that grid operators along the tracks will not only consume the local electricity mix, but commit to the exclusive use of low-emissions electricity, thus operating with a small carbon footprint.

The outcome of data transmission emissions through a given path changes according to certain conditions

The outcome of data transmission emissions through a given path changes according to certain conditions

Photo: Simon Shearer

Now imagine that communication pathways can be determined dynamically based on their current carbon footprint. Such a system has the potential to conserve huge amounts of carbon emissions and thus significantly reduce the climate impact of the Internet. These savings would be more pronounced if not only the path, but also the other end point of the connection was chosen, based on carbon density. Thanks to geo-replication, the same content is usually available from different data centers, which allows for such improvements.

More diverse Internet architecture

If users are provided with cleaner paths and contacts, we would expect a large portion of them to receive such an offer. Estimates of willingness to pay to avoid CO2 suggest that demand for green communications may be disrupted even if those communications are more expensive (low-emissions electricity may sometimes be more expensive) or slower (low-emissions paths may not be the fastest paths) .

Unfortunately, today’s Internet architecture is not equipped to accommodate these user preferences. The path discovery mechanism in use today (a protocol called BGP) provides only one path between any two points on the Internet, offering neither transparency nor choice to users.

To solve these drawbacks, researchers have worked for more than a decade to create a viable alternative. This alternative, SCION’s next-generation Internet architecture, allows service providers (ISPs) to offer multiple routes to their customers, augment those routes with valuable information (such as a route’s carbon footprint), and redirect traffic based on customers’ choice of route.

To offer SCION, no surprise substitutions are required with respect to the basic operations of the Internet; Alternatively, SCION can coexist with the existing paradigm and enable path selection within the gradually expanding subnetwork of entities that adopt SCION. Several ISPs already operate SCION, with Anapaya Systems offering SCION connectivity in over 60 data centers globally.

Choosing the Internet path will economically stimulate ISPs to switch to a green environment

Choosing the Internet path will economically stimulate ISPs to switch to a green environment

Photo: Simon Shearer/Chankong Yu

Effective Internet Course

Due to its path selection characteristics, SCION creates an Internet where end users can shift their electricity consumption to low emission grid operators. Surprisingly, such an environmentally oriented directive creates a bonus for service providers who invest in energy-efficient equipment and low-emission electricity. This reward mechanism can create a virtuous cycle: If green providers can attract additional traffic, the most polluting providers will lose traffic and, as a result, a share of their revenue.

Since moving Internet traffic is a business with high fixed costs and low margins, any decrease in traffic severely affects the network operator’s profits. Faced with the risk of shortages, polluting ISPs may reduce their carbon footprint by increasing energy efficiency or subscribing to green electricity, to win back environmentally conscious users. As a result, choosing a path in the Internet not only reallocates traffic to members of low-emission networks, but incentivizes all network members to reduce their carbon footprint.

There is reason to believe that such an environmentally friendly service can be offered profitably. Low-emission electricity costs have become competitive with standard electricity prices in recent years, although there is still debate about how to determine the costs arising from the diversity of sources such as solar and wind power; In any case, electricity costs make up only 5% of telecom operators’ operating costs, which greatly reduces any increases. On the revenue side, behavioral studies suggest that consumers will pay an average of 6% more for an internet service offer if that service becomes completely carbon-neutral.

Corporate leaders in the mining, metals, and manufacturing industries are changing their approach to integrating climate considerations into complex supply chains.

The Forum’s Mining and Minerals Blockchain Initiative, which was created to accelerate an industry solution to highlight supply chain and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) requirements, has produced a unique proof of concept for tracking emissions across the value chain using distributed ledger technology.


Developed in collaboration with industry experts, it not only tests the technological feasibility of a solution but also explores the intricacies of supply chain dynamics and establishes requirements for future use of data.

In doing so, the proof of concept responds to stakeholder demands to create “mine to market” vision and accountability.

The World Economic Forum’s Mining and Minerals Community is a high-level group of peers dedicated to ensuring the long-term sustainability of their industry and society. Read more about their work and how to get involved with our Impact Story.

Therefore, reducing CO2, at least in part, is a reasonable business opportunity for ISPs. Environmentally aware guidance, as enabled by SCION, may not only be good for the planet – it can also be good for business.