Smoke chimney

The Dirty Internet

We love the internet, right? I know I do. Since its first inception it has consistently proven itself as the defining disruptive force in the world. It’s taken our planet and shrunk it down to the size of a smartwatch. It’s enabled unprecedented strides in social justice. It’s brought breaking news from thousands of miles away to our feed in a fraction of a second. It’s provided a platform from which countless millions have been able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a living for themselves. Plus it’s made access to cat pictures infinitely easier; so there’s that.

The internet is undeniably a force for good.

But Houston, we have a problem.

However, the internet has a dirty secret. Hidden behind the gorgeous, 4k ultra HD, silky smooth, touch-sensitive, face-recognising, finger-print-scanning, wonderful magic-ness of your computer or tablet or phone or watch or…oh, I don’t know…fridge; we have a problem bubbling away.

The truth is, the internet is increasingly damaging the environment.

As more and more people around the world have gained access to the magic the energy and materials required to run it have dramatically increased. So much so that as things stand now the internet produces as much CO2 as the global air travel industry – and that’s one dirty industry. And things are only getting worse.

Let’s play the numbers game…

How much carbon do you think a simple Google search releases into our atmosphere? It’s an odd question, right? It’s hard to even equate the two. The answer? About 7 grams. Not much? Wrong. 7 grams is about as much carbon that gets released when you boil a kettle – and we all know kettles aren’t particularly efficient users of energy (except when it’s for tea, then it’s fine…).

What about an email with a couple of attachments? 7 grams again? 10? 15? No. It’s 50. That’s 7 (and a bit) boiled kettles in one email.

How about internet video? The YouTubes and Netflixes of the world? Well, a streamed video emits about 0.2 grams of carbon per second. Now that really doesn’t sound like a lot. But how long is your average Netflix show? An hour? That adds up to 720 grams per hour – the equivalent of running your washing machine for a 30 degree cycle. And let’s be honest, it’s Netflix; it’s never just one hour, is it?

The emissions of internet video are thrown into stark relief too when you add up how much video is watch around the world. One billion hours of YouTube videos alone are watched per day.

Let me type that again. One billion hours per day. And that statistic is already a year old!

Some maths then; 0.2 grams of CO2 per second of internet video multiplied by 3,600,000,000,000 seconds (i.e. one billion hours) equals 720,000,000,000 grams or 720,000 metric tons a day. And that’s just YouTube! Netflix contributes the same amount again every week.

The numbers are beyond staggering.

And so far I’ve only talked about the movement of data around the internet. I’ve got so much more for you.

The Internet of Things

What is the internet, really? Well it doesn’t actually float around in a cloud for starters.

Recently there’s been much talk about The Internet of Things – i.e. the connection of items like ovens, fridges, light bulbs and central heating systems to the internet. But the truth is the internet has always been an internet of things. It’s just a big network of computers all talking to each other – that’s all!

Which leads me to the second big factor in our little problem; hardware. The devices we use to access, maintain and serve the internet. The physical computers, phones, smartwatches, tablets, servers, FitBits, Amazon Echo’s, internet-enabled fridges, ovens, microwaves, lights, heating systems, and so on and so on and so on. They all have to be manufactured faster, distributed faster and shipped faster as demand for the beautiful, wonderful, magical internet grows. Huge server farms like those used by Google and Facebook have to be powered and cooled. And your simple Google search will typically travel through several severs each time.

Are we doomed?

It sometimes seems like the only answer to that question is “yes” – especially when the likes of the USA take backward environmental steps instead of knuckling down on the issue. But there are things we can do; and some things we’re already doing.

It would be unfair to say the likes of Google and Facebook are doing nothing. Most of their server farms now run directly off renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Bit there’s a lot more to do.

Here are some things we can do:

1. Move to cloud computing and storage.

Although this solution requires more and more server farms, it’s more efficient than relying on millions of individual devices for storage and processing power. Instead of individual companies having to buy in and maintain their own servers on-line, multiple companies could use the cloud to host their computing and storage needs all in one remote location, accessible via the Internet. It’s a simple case of efficiencies of scale. One big farm can be more efficiently manufactured, powered, cooled and maintained than thousands of local servers.

2. Host websites on green-powered servers.

As I’ve said, one of the biggest issues we have is the powering of server farms using carbon-based fuels like coal, gas and oil. The vast majority of websites are hosted on servers powered this way. However, there is a happy trend gaining traction of hosting companies running their servers with green technologies like wind, solar, thermal or hydro power. My own website at https://www.tjswebdesign.uk is one such site; as is any site I design and host.

3. Start building hardware to last.

This is an easy one for me to write about and much tougher one to realise. But with the manufacture and shipping of hardware contributing so much to this problem, we’ve got to look more at the longevity of our devices. How many of us routinely trade in our phones when the new year’s model comes out? It’s baked into how we interact with technology. And if fashion wasn’t enough, many companies intentionally build in failures in their products so that after a certain amount of time it will begin to break and you’ll be forced to buy a new one.

This is a hard ask because it goes against two basic desires; the companies making this hardware needs repeat sales in order to survive and consumers are always eager to get the new shiny thing. But it hasn’t always been this way. It wasn’t so long ago that products were built to last a lifetime. Furniture is a good example of this. A chest of drawers or a dining table would be built to last and be handed down generations. Now we’re coaxed into buying a new set every season. Perhaps it’s time to start learning some lessons from that.

 

This has been a long old post, so I’ll leave things here. If you’d like to find out more about the environmental impacts of the internet and what we can do to help alleviate those pressures, I’d recommend visiting http://www.clickclean.org/.

Until next time,

Tom

I'm Tom and I'm a self-taught Front-end Web Developer. I spend every moment I can learning about graphic design, web technologies and workflow in order to improve my knowledge, abilities and skill. I currently work as Junior Web Developer at the Webkick web design agency in Andover, Hampshire.

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