What is the Environmental Impact of the Internet?

A Map of the Internet. Image Source: DiscoveryMagazine.com

Dear Pablo: I know that it's better, from an environmental perspective, to shop online than driving to a store but what about other uses of the internet? What is the environmental impact of internet use?In past articles I have written about the environmental benefits of shopping online and the benefits of reading documents online versus printing them but let's face it, many of our uses of the internet don't actually replace other activities. One could argue, I guess, that Facebook replaces the need to drive to a friend's house, but for the most part it is just a novel new form of social interaction/entertainment and a massive productivity drain. So what is the impact of a lazy afternoon on Failblog.org, or any of the other 101 ways to waste time online?

Several recent studies and articles have shown that a simple Google search can result in 1-10 grams of CO2 emissions. With over 200 million internet searches per day (2006) in the US alone, we are looking at up to 2000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per day. Last fall Google decided to work with Greenhouse Gas Services, a GE and AES joint venture, to capture and destroy landfill methane emissions from a North Carolina landfill. This reduction in greenhouse gas emissions helps to lessen net emissions and "offsets" some of Google's own "carbon footprint." Unfortunately the 2000 ton figure refers only to internet searches, but what about other uses for the internet?

Most computers create 40-80 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per hour through their electricity use (depending on electricity source and computer type), so the aggregated greenhouse gas emissions just from computers is quite sizable, nevermind the servers and fiber optic lines. Sources say that the internet accounts for 3 percent of US electricity consumption and 2 percent of global CO2 emissions.

So, what can be done to reduce the environmental impact of the internet? Many of the companies involved in building and operating the data centers, the brains of the internet, have been working on improving data center efficiency for several years. Processors have increased in computing power, while decreasing in energy demand, and new ways have been developed to keep massive server farms cool. Server farms can be located near hydroelectric facilities or other sources of renewable energy and the can be built in the arctic circle to take advantage of natural cooling.

On an individual level it is important to simply be aware that using the internet is not "carbon neutral" and don't leave your computer on when you aren't using it.

Ask Pablo is a weekly column that aims to answer your pressing eco-quandries. Want to ask Pablo a question? Simply email Pablo(at)treehugger(dot)com. Wondering why Pablo's qualified to answer? As the Vice President of Greenhouse Gas Management at ClimateCHECK, he helps major corporations measure and manage their greenhouse gas emissions.
Additional Resources on the Environmental Impacts of Computer Use
The Footprint of Gmail: How Much Energy Would Deleting Email Save?
The Internet is Becoming More Energy Efficient, But Total Energy Use is Climbing

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