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How Big Is The Carbon Footprint For A Click On The Internet?

Every click, every search query, every email pollutes the climate. Internet usage by millions of people adds up to a huge carbon footprint. Identifying the exact effects is complicated. It is difficult to calculate how harmful individual actions on the network are. 

Did you check your email today? Have you been on the Internet looking at photos and videos? Have you started a search query or ordered something online? For most of us, the answer to at least one of these questions is “yes,” – which is problematic.

Carbon Footprint: Internet Is Responsible For 3.7 Percent Of Emissions

Because as small as these actions may be in and of themselves: All in all, they harm the climate. Because every click, every voice command, and a minute on the Internet causes greenhouse gas emissions. After all, we need the energy to operate servers, send data over the Internet, and use end devices.

This is not because you are checking your emails as an individual or surfing the net. Instead, this is because four billion people – more than 53 percent of the world’s population – use the Internet. So it is the total number of internet users that creates a high carbon footprint.

The Shift Project, a French think tank that deals intensively with the CO2 emissions of the Internet, has calculated in a projection that Internet consumption is responsible for 3.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Shift Project estimates that this number could double by 2025. One reason for this is the increasing number of AI projects.

From “Red AI” To “Green AI”

A research group from the USA has determined that the computational effort for deep learning processes has increased by 300,000 times over the past six years. The primary measure of this computing power is to make the programs more accurate. The researchers call this “Red AI” – red artificial intelligence. Extensive technology corporations like Google or Facebook pay to invest many resources in making minor improvements inaccuracy. Only: The efficiency and sustainability of AI are not currently being considered.

That is why the researchers advocate paying more attention to the accuracy of AI and its efficiency to reduce the energy consumption of AI processes. They call this “Green AI” – green artificial intelligence. One thing is clear: if the CO2 footprint of the Internet is not reduced, there is a risk of long-term resource bottlenecks.

“The current trend towards digital overconsumption in the world is unsustainable concerning the need for the energy and materials required for this,” writes The Shift Project in its latest report. But what does this mean for your internet consumption? What is the carbon footprint for one click? Or sending an email?

Carbon Footprint: Estimates Rather Than Exact Payments

These questions are not that easy to answer. Because while it is still relatively easy to calculate how much power is needed to read an email, it becomes much more difficult to calculate the total carbon footprint.

Because if we want to calculate exactly how many emissions reading an email causes, it is not enough to know what electricity you use in your household, which device you use, where in the world you are, and how big the emails are. Mail file is – direct emissions or Scope 1.

We also need to know how much energy the provision of the necessary infrastructure consumes. This includes, for example, the operation of your email provider’s cloud server and the power that the data center in which the server is located needs – indirect emissions or Scope 2.

All of this together is not that easy. Because the mail footprint varies depending on what kind of electricity you use in your household and what type of device you have. The same applies to the infrastructure.

Suppose the data center runs on green electricity and highly efficient energy processes. In that case, the balance sheet looks much better than in a data center that runs on electricity from fossil fuels and whose energy consumption has not yet been optimized. But that’s not all.

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Biggest Hurdle: Indirect Emissions In The “Scope 3” Category

Because the CO2 footprint also includes how many resources were used to build the data center or the server. This ranges from creating the required building materials and their processing to the transport of the components.

You can then even argue about whether you also have to include the CO2 emissions from Google as a company itself in the bill, for example, the journey of the Gmail employees to the workplace or the energy costs of the Gmail department. All of this counts as other indirect emissions or Scope 3 – and it is this information, in particular, that is very difficult to determine.

Carbon Footprint: This Is How Many Emissions Simple Internet Processes Cause

Every click on the Internet causes CO2 emissions (CO2e). Here some figures are broken down into individual processes, which do not always or entirely include Scope 3 factors.

  • Stream a video for one hour: 3.2 kilograms of CO2e
  • A Google search query: 0.2 grams of CO2e
  • Simple email (without attachment): 4 grams of CO2e
  • The email with photo attachment: 30 grams of CO2e
  • Spam mail: 0.3 grams of CO2e
  • An Amazon parcel ( direct delivery ): 500 to 600 grams of CO2e

As a general comparison: a car causes an average of 150 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometer. Accordingly, there are many projections and estimates in this area, but they are not very precise. The footprint for a Google Mail may also look very different from that for a Yahoo Mail.

The Company Is Not Transparent With Climate Data

Technology companies are not yet very transparent when making their Scope 3 data publicly available. At least that seems to be slowly changing. For example, Microsoft, Apple, and Google have promised an open approach to their emissions data, including the Scope 3 figures. However, the first precise figures will only be delivered in the coming years.

Political pressure could also ensure that companies will have to make their carbon footprint public in the future. For example, the European Commission is demanding more climate-related information from companies.

At the same time, the green image is also becoming more critical for companies. Because both investors and consumers base their decisions more on how climate-friendly a company is. Companies have to present transparent data to position themselves as sustainable company. At the same time, there is both an incentive and pressure to make digital processes more sustainable. There is a lot of potential in this area in particular.

Because experts also agree, digitization and especially artificial intelligence can make internet consumption much more climate-friendly than it is currently through intelligent processes. Experts, therefore, expect both more transparency in climate data and a stronger focus on more energy-saving processes in the coming years.

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