Shame on You, Nerd!

Why surfing harms the environment just as much as flying does.
3 Min.

Text: Ekkehard Haug, 14.08.2020

Carbon footprint, climate neutrality and flight shaming are buzzwords that everyone is talking about. But who stops to think about their Spotify or iTunes playlists, their Netflix or Amazon Prime account, or their wardrobe full of clothes from Zalando? Who of us are plagued by a guilty conscience when we send an email, attend a web conference, or post images of our dog on Facebook and Instagram? Sonnenallee sheds light on why using the Internet makes just as big a contribution to climate change as, for example, air travel – and perhaps even more in this coronavirus era.

More emails, more streaming, more online shopping – platforms such as Teams, Zoom, Skype, Amazon, Netflix and Spotify right through to YouTube and YouPorn have all been enjoying a real boom thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. On the one hand, this means more data and more power use in data centers – along with greater electricity demand and greater CO2 emissions as a result. But, on the other hand, it also means less: fewer meetings, less traveling, fewer events, which in turn means less road traffic, less train travel, fewer flights – and hence less CO2. Irrespective of whichever form of pollution – digital or analog – contributes more to climate change in the future, the big question is what can humanity, politicians, businesses and every single one of us do about it?

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the issue of CO2 emissions to fade into the background, at least for the time being. And debates on whether it is now the Internet or air travel that is producing greater levels of greenhouse gases seem pointless. However, the COVID-19 crisis will be presented by many – including the European Commission – as an opportunity to push forward with future-related issues such as carbon neutrality and digitalization more quickly and more effectively than previously envisaged.

Although IT companies like Apple, Google and Amazon like to portray themselves as role models when it comes to climate protection, the power consumption of the Internet industry is enormous. Streaming services, online shops and email are real energy guzzlers because they require ever more and ever larger data centers. Then there are the devices on which these applications run. Some calculations suggest that IT devices and applications produce as much CO2 a year as the nation of Germany, that is to say approximately 800 million tonnes. Energy experts like Staffan Revemann estimate that the global electricity demand for data centers in 2030 will be five times higher than in 2010.

So does the Internet harm the environment more than international air travel? In an MDR article from August 2019, sustainability expert Ralph Hintemann from the Berlin Borderstep Institute comes to the conclusion that both CO2 emitters are more or less equal. That said, if we consider the impact on the climate, which also takes into account other pollutants and the type of emissions, the impact that air travel has on the environment is around twice as big. Hintemann uses a specific example to illustrate this: “If I were to stream videos all day long (…), over the whole year I would still produce less CO2 than a flight to Majorca.”

Who thinks about carbon footprint or climate neutrality when talking about Spotify, Netflix or Prime Video? The topic of C02 emissions through data use definitely offers a lot of potential for good and economical solutions.

But where exactly do the CO2 emissions related to Internet use occur? In an article from August 2019, Austrian newspaper Der Standard writes that “emissions are generated primarily by the operations to cool down the hot running servers.“ In 2012, the energy demand of global data centers came to 30 billion watts – 30 times the energy generated by a nuclear power plant.

The article cites other remarkable figures:

  • 500 hours of video material are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
  • 205 billion emails are sent every day.
  • A medium-sized company with 100 employees produces 13.6 tonnes of CO2 a year through emails – the equivalent of 13 flights from Paris to New York and back.
  • Streaming online videos generates 300 million tonnes of CO2 (one sordid detail is that the annual consumption of pornography alone produces as many CO2 emissions as Belgium in a whole year).
  • If the IT sector were a country, it would be third in the energy consumption rankings – behind China and the U.S.

The list could easily go on. But instead let’s ask the question of what companies, institutions and individuals can do to combat this data pollution.

Highly praised artificial intelligence could be helpful. Google, for example, has developed an intelligent control system that will reduce the energy consumption of its own server farms by 40 percent. The percentage of renewable energy used by the IT giants is also steadily increasing. And there are pilot projects that aim to feed the waste heat from data centers, for example, into city district heating systems.

And what can we humble Internet users do? In a ZDF article from November 2019, Steffen Holzmann, green IT expert at Deutsche Umwelthilfe, writes: “Delete old emails. Unsubscribe from any unwanted newsletters. Archive photos and videos on storage media rather than in the cloud.”

Or we could simply ask ourselves questions more often, such as: Am I really making an essential contribution to humanity’s continued existence by sharing with my Facebook community that I’ve just bought a Vanilla Bean Cloud Macchiato at Starbucks?

The carbon footprint of data use is a major potential issue at any rate, for the acceleration of climate change on the one hand and for savings on the other. We have our future – at least partly – in our own hands.