The Carbon Impact of the Internet

Michelle Heath
The Carbon Impact of the Internet

The internet has been around since the 1960s but it was the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee (CERN) that transformed global communication. 

As of July 2020, approximately 4.57 billion people globally (59% of the global population) were active Internet users (Statista).  Around 640,000 first time users go online daily or 27,000 first time users hourly (Our World in Data).

Social media platforms are used by one-in-three people in the world.

In the United States, according to BOND Internet Trends, the daily average hours spent per adult (18+) on digital media in 2018 was 6.3 hours (3.6 hours mobile phone, 2 hours desktop/laptop, 0.7 hours other connected devices).  This is up from 2.7 hours in 2008 (0.3 hours mobile phone, 2.2 hours desktop/laptop, 0.2 hours other connected devices.

Canada currently has more than 33 million internet users, 92% of the country’s population (bignewsnetwork) with adults (18 – 34) spending on average 5 hours per day on the internet.

Digital services and gadgets like movies and music, smart phones, apps, route planners, online banking and the many other conveniences provided by the internet have become an integral part of the way we live.  However, each online action, like responding to an email, messaging, browsing, watching a video, has an environmental cost, a few grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere from the energy needed to operate our digital device as well as that required to support the massive data centres and servers supporting the internet.

But the grams add up … across 4.57 billion users!  And the energy consumed is great!  In fact, data centers are the most energy-intensive building types in the United States, accounting for approximately 2% of the total U.S. electricity use and globally they account for just under 200 terawatt hours (TWh).

Our digital world demands huge amounts of energy, every minute of everyday with the average user spending 24 hours a week or one full day on line.

According to a Google analysis (2009), a typical Google search returns results in less than 0.2 seconds and, in terms of GHG, results in about 0.2 grams of CO2.  As the world’s most popular website, processing 3.5 billion searches a day, Google accounts for 40% of the Internet’s carbon footprint.  In the Google’s 2019 Environmental Report, Google estimated its 2018 greenhouse gases to be 13,816,000 tonnes of CO2e which, in alignment with industry best practices, included emissions associated with food from their corporate offices, hardware manufacturing emissions, use of sold products, and end-of-life treatment of sold products, all net of neutralized emissions.   Its electrical consumption was 10.1 terawatt hours (TWh). Estimates of the carbon footprint of digital technology and the growing numbers of Internet users ranges from 1.4 – 4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  But, the use of digital technology to improve efficiencies in other sectors of the global economy including energy supply and use, transportation, buildings and industry as well as its potential for advancing sustainable economic growth in developing countries may well out weigh the negative