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  • Jayanti Srivastava

The Environmental Costs of Being Online

Author: Nandini Jiva

Editor: Diya Rakesh


As the world turns paperless, and online communication becomes more convenient, there is an added cost of the burden of internet consumption on the environment. Storing emails, streaming content online, exchanging text messages, spending time on social media, and other activities online adds to global carbon emissions.

A new study by Yale University on the hidden costs of digital activity on the environment estimates that there was a 40 percent increase in internet usage after the COVID-19 lockdown began in various nations. This has increased the demand for electricity to support data transmission. Making efforts to go green and completely online has continued to gain ground but with lack of awareness about the environmental costs of the same. The study further explained that if remote learning and communication continued to be the dominant mode of communication even through 2021, it would result in an additional 34.3 million tonnes of carbon emissions. This would take longer than usual to be compensated for.

The study also highlighted that the amount of water required to generate electricity and cool servers and hardware would fill 317,200 Olympic-size swimming pools. In this regard, multi-national software companies like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, Instagram, Zoom and so on are the leaders in energy consumption through the digital medium. Digital technologies are only set to increase in their greenhouse gas emissions in the future, with the figure of 4 percent currently, expected to double by the year 2025. Since it is still a niche area of consumption, most policymakers have overlooked the necessity to regulate the same. A similar pattern of the economic divide comes into play here as well. People in developed nations will always account for the majority of the internet’s carbon footprint. The average Australian user was responsible for 81kg of CO2e (carbon emissions) ten years ago.

Among the few who are focusing on the issue are a group of environmental experts from Paris who instituted a think tank to look into exploring the idea of “digital sobriety”. The think tank, called “The Shift Project”, aims at reaching a level where the Internet can be used in a more judicious and mindful way, instead of completely cutting down on it. Maxime Efoui-Hess, a member of said think tank, has the following to say about this: “The ‘good effects’ of digital technologies, in terms of energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions, are constantly neutralised at global scale by the fact that we use these technologies without thinking about the right way to do it”. The belief that the current format for Internet consumption makes the users victims to an “addictive design” implies that features like ‘auto play’ and ‘recommended section in streaming sites can drastically increase the amount of time a user spends on the Internet. These practises can deter users from taking the first step towards judicious usage.

While all this is manifesting in its own pace, organisations should understand that moving to renewable sources of energy and not using fossil fuels is a potential solution. In a scenario where a single person making a small change can add up to monumental differences in the carbon emissions, it is also imperative that industries as a whole take initiative to make their services more sustainable since they collectively impact the consumption patterns in a big way. This is demonstrated through the fact that the IT industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to reach 14 percent of CO2e by 2040. At the same time, the UN’s International Telecommunications Union has set the industry target of a 45 percent reduction in emissions in the next decade.

Furthermore, a lot of the problems arising in terms of digital emissions can be solved through specific and precise informational campaigns and behavioural nudges. Environmental activists, teachers, scientists, news media, can play an important role in informing people about the long-term impact of environmental degradation occurring through digital media. These directives can be simple: deleting emails regularly, not storing unnecessarily on the cloud-based storage services, limiting time on social media, reducing the quality of video in streaming services, turning off the video during a virtual meeting, unsubscribing from email lists and so on, can appear insignificant on an individual level, but collectively add to the CO2e reductions majorly.

The Internet has opened doors to a lot of green practises that can reduce our footprint on the planet. Holding on to your electronic devices for longer periods of time can also help reduce manufacturing and maintenance costs of a lot of appliances. If the life cycle of a laptop can be doubled from 4 to 8 years, it can significantly reduce emissions. Using the Wi-Fi over your mobile network can reduce energy consumption. Switching off your Wi-Fi when not in use, especially post-midnight, can drastically impact energy consumption in homes. Cautious and conscious use of the same is necessary to prevent any kind of over-consumption of the resources that might burden the environment more than it already has been so. Simple changes in consumption patterns at no extra cost can add up to bigger, more noticeable changes in the future.

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