How much does the internet contribute to global emissions?

  • The sudden rise in video conferencing and live broadcasting has raised concerns about the emissions it generates.
  • An hour of flow in Europe has a carbon footprint equivalent to three times boiling an electric kettle or driving 250 metres.
  • Between February and April last year, at the height of worldwide lockdowns, global internet traffic rose by about 40%.
  • Web traffic is set to double by 2022.
  • Studies estimate that digital technologies already contribute between 1.4% and 5.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

With COVID-19 restrictions imposed globally, our reliance on digital technology has skyrocketed in 2020 as video calls, emails, instant messaging, and virtual entertainment have replaced face-to-face interactions in and out of the workplace.

Between February and April last year, at the height of worldwide lockdowns, global internet traffic rose nearly 40%, driven by video conferencing, online gaming, live broadcasting and social media, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

At this rate, web traffic is set to double by 2022, with mobile internet users expected to jump to 5 billion by 2025 from 3.8 billion last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

And all of this online activity has to be powered by electricity, which raises the question of whether it could lead to an increase in emissions of heating the planet, now and in the future.

Energy researchers say the picture is more complex than it might seem at first glance.

British environmental consultancy The Carbon Trust found in June that watching video-on-demand has significantly lower emissions than some previous studies suggested.

Analysis showed that an hour of streaming in Europe, for example, has a carbon footprint equivalent to boiling an electric kettle three times or driving just 250 metres, while switching to a lower-quality video stream didn’t make much difference.

Historic carbon footprint of the ICT sector

Historic carbon footprint of the ICT sector

Photo: Carbon Trust

More broadly, the International Energy Agency says streaming services from videos and games are driving demand for data center services, and will account for 87% of consumer Internet traffic in 2022.

Experts say the industry’s greener future will depend on where energy technology companies use and how they design their products.

IEA analysis shows that data centers that process and store data from online activities, such as email and video streaming, accounted for about 1% of global electricity use in 2019.

However, despite a 60% increase in demand for data center services, it is estimated that the power required to power this will remain constant until 2022, says the International Energy Agency, citing a February 2020 study led by American engineering professor Eric Massanet at the University of Northwestern.

This is because, compared to other industries, data centers in general are becoming more energy efficient and companies are increasingly investing in renewable energy to cool their servers, said George Kamiya, a researcher at the International Energy Agency.

“Decarbonizing the aviation and heavy industries is a challenge because many of the technologies we need are not yet commercially available,” he noted.

“Decarbonizing data centers is easier: providing them with clean electric power and continuing to drive energy efficiency through policies, investment and innovation,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cooling can account for up to half of a data center’s total energy use, according to Green Mountain, a data center company in Norway that powers hydroelectric power from nearby fjords and glaciers.

“Data centers generate a tremendous amount of heat and that heat needs to be removed, or it won’t work — everything will melt,” said Tor CEO Kristian Gyland.

One Google data center in Finland is using recycled seawater to provide the power needed to cool its servers, while other companies have opened facilities near the Arctic Circle to take advantage of naturally cool air.

Tech giants including Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have pledged to use only renewable energy and reach net zero emissions over the next two decades.

But research shows that emerging technologies such as cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence and 5G networks can slow efforts to tackle global warming by consuming ever-increasing amounts of energy.

Studies estimate that digital technologies contribute between 1.4% and 5.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Royal Society, a leading British scientific academy.

By comparison, the transportation sector — mostly road vehicles — accounts for about a quarter, says the International Energy Agency.

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.

Can individual actions help tackle technology-related emissions?

In a report last year, the Royal Society said keeping a smartphone longer or repairing it could reduce carbon emissions while taking into account the “embodied” emissions needed to make a phone in the first place – from mining and manufacturing to distribution.

She added that recycling e-waste could reduce the environmental impact of the mining industry.

Andie Stephens of The Carbon Trust said the biggest measure an individual could take to reduce streaming video emissions is to turn electricity and internet suppliers into companies that use renewable energy.

“Every activity we do has a carbon footprint… It keeps this in perspective and doesn’t try to blame people for doing things that have a very small carbon footprint,” he said.

“There are a lot of important things people can do if they want to change their lifestyle.”

Reducing online leisure activities will not stop climate change, Kamiya of the International Energy Agency said.

“I am concerned that focusing too much on low-emissions activities such as video streaming may distract attention from other behavioral changes that can actually reduce emissions, such as flying and driving less,” he said.

“While individual actions matter, we need governments to implement robust climate policies to achieve structural emission reductions across all sectors.”

At the same time, he added, many applications of digital technologies can help reduce emissions, for example, using artificial intelligence to predict and improve how we use electricity in the home.

“We need the right energy and climate policies to make sure that digitization helps tackle climate change, rather than making it worse,” he said.