Climate change: The internet generates vast amounts of carbon emissions, but it doesn't have to be that way – Shane Herath

The early sight of cherry blossoms may have initially seemed pleasing, especially after a long, dreary winter. And, in a country like the UK, who would ever really complain about summer knocking on the door ahead of schedule?

But the premature appearance of these annual trends should concern us all, especially as the world wrestles more vigorously than ever with how to balance our growing energy requirements alongside the need to reduce emissions.

Throw in a war instigated by one of the world’s major oil producers, and the problem becomes more acute still.

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Solutions to this are often talked about: cut the amount of air travel, switch from oil, gas and coal to renewable energy, and plant more trees to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Some of those are easier to pursue than others, and none can happen particularly quickly. But one area that’s seldom spoken about is the role of the internet.

Perhaps because we cannot see the emissions caused by the web, we don’t take it seriously as a contributor to global warming.

There’s no smoke from the keyboards, or chimneys attached to major data centres.

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The world wide web may not produce visual signs of its carbon emissions, but they are very real (Picture: Boryana Katsarova/AFP via Getty Images)The world wide web may not produce visual signs of its carbon emissions, but they are very real (Picture: Boryana Katsarova/AFP via Getty Images)
The world wide web may not produce visual signs of its carbon emissions, but they are very real (Picture: Boryana Katsarova/AFP via Getty Images)

In truth, however, the internet is responsible for the use of ten per cent of the world’s electricity, much of which is sourced from fossil fuel.

And as the world, especially the gigantic developing counties in Africa and Asia, increase their access to the internet, this number is only going to increase, with some projecting it will double within a few years.

Most people are shocked to find that energy consumed by the internet amounts to more than the maligned aviation sector.

When you think of the sheer scale of internet activity, from the tablets at home and the PCs in the office to the power used by data centres and transmission networks, the output is enormous – and we’re all playing a part in it.

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The average website produces around 100kg of carbon dioxide each year, based on just 4,739 monthly page views. What does that mean? It’s the equivalent of 483km in a traditional fossil fuel-powered car.

Some websites receive a lot more page views than that, sometimes half a million per month, which results in the emission of a whopping ten tonnes of CO2 per year.

So what can we all do about this? Fortunately for ordinary members of the public, the responsibility broadly lies with those who own the world’s 1.9 billion websites.

The scientific advisory board at the Eco-Friendly Web Alliance (EFWA) has worked out that a green website will not emit more than one gram of CO2 per page view.

Achieving that is straightforward for most websites, and can be done by reducing bloat, using lower-resolution images, and not autoplaying videos when someone logs on. And they can go further.

When choosing a hosting provider, businesses and organisations can opt for those who are matching 100 per cent of their electricity consumption with purchases of renewable energy.

Website owners, based on their own site’s emissions, can take responsibility by supporting tree-planting, rewilding or regenerative farming, among other things.

Doing this can actually result in a climate positive website. If ten million websites across the world did this, it would prevent 500,000 tonnes of CO2 going into the atmosphere.

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It may sound like a small portion for an individual website, but a business or organisation which receives a lot of hits could make notable environmental differences by reducing the electricity used with each click.

Local authorities are an example of interest. A study by the EFWA found around half of councils in Scotland, England and Wales run websites which exceed the recommended one gram per page view.

These are bodies which have declared climate emergencies and repeatedly assert their commitment to improving the environment.

By making some simple optimisation changes to their websites, they could all make their pages more environmentally friendly, and some would argue they have a duty to do so.

The country’s governments are already achieving this – another finding from our analysis was that the UK, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments all had websites which achieved scores below the one gram threshold.

That’s important not just for sending the right message to the public, but also given the millions of hits these websites receive for everything from foreign travel information to the payment of taxes and receipt of benefits.

It’s easy enough for organisations to discover their own estimated output per page view. Our calculator isn’t the only one available that tells you far you need to go to drive down energy consumption on your own page.

There’s more to this argument than ethics and morality. When businesses show they are doing their bit to clean up the planet, consumers tend to respond positively.

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The United Nations even has a commitment to reducing waste caused by the digital eco-system which promotes “conscious and responsible consumption”.

Reducing energy consumed by internet use may lack the bells and whistles of other environmental goals. But the truth is our global internet structure is a mess.

It has grown and grown without any checks and balances on sustainability, quite unlike almost any other area of growth in modern times. Still it continues to surge, with talk of the metaverse and 5G technology.

Even in our own lives barely a week goes by when an upgrade of some form, be it a mobile phone or internet-sapping television package, isn’t thrust in front of our eyes.

All that requires more electricity, and our lives are simply not geared to reducing our dependence on the internet. That being the case, it is critical that we make the internet a more efficient and carbon-neutral resource.

Achieving this will mean that while the premature cherry blossom images themselves may still be of concern to climate scientists, the energy used sharing them widely on social media and the internet will not.

Shane Herath is chair of the Eco-Friendly Web Alliance

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