The Internet’s Environmental Footprint. Part 1.

Brief Context

Ultimately, it is simple: We are in a climate crisis. And by now, you’ve probably heard that most climate projections point out that even with the most ambitious policy and industry efforts, we will be very hard pressed to stay within the livable limits of 1.5°C of global warming. Note: 1.5°C is the same as a 2.7°F temperature increase.

Making Sense of Scale

To clarify: 1 gigaton is the same as 1 billion metric tons. And because I know how incredibly difficult it is to understand these numbers and put them into meaningful perspective, I’ll give you a few comparisons.

Sustainability and the Internet

According to the European Commission, the impact of the Information and Communications Technology sector amounts to around 2% of global emissions — and it cautions that this may increase to up to 14% until 2040, if no countermeasures are taken. This illustrates both: the growing impact of digital technologies and its outsized opportunity to fuel the necessary transformation.

Let’s start with Social Media.

I found a 2015 study that looked at Facebook’s reported emissions and concluded that this would amount to 281 grams of CO2e per active profile. While the assumptions in that report are rough to say the least, it does provide some orientation for how to approximate the impact of social media.

  • Facebook: 2.7 billion
  • Instagram: 854.5 million
  • TikTok: 800 million
  • Snapchat: 347.3 million
  • Twitter: 321 million
  • Twitch: 15 million

Turning to Online Advertising.

One often quoted study evaluated that the carbon footprint of online advertising in 2016 constituted 10% of the total CO2 emissions of the internet. In 2016, this meant roughly 107 Terra Watthour (TWh) of energy, which equals approximately 60 million tons of CO2 emissions (CO2e).

Then there’s Online Streaming.

The measurements and data shared around this category have drawn a lot of attention and are currently quite disputed in terms of emissions.

How about Connected Devices?

There are currently around 30 billion devices connected to the internet. This amounts to 3–4 devices per person across the global population. Geographically, it equates to roughly 13 devices per person in North America and 1–3 devices per person in Asia and Africa.

Another bucket is Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is often used as a catch-all phrase for automation and I will admit that I have no idea how many models and implementations really exist. Thanks to research from MIT we know, however, that training popular natural language processing AI models produced the same CO2 as flying roughly 300 times between Munich and Accra, Ghana, namely 284 mt CO2e.

In Sum

Picture of the overall calculation summing up the various components of the internet’s carbon footprint.

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Cathleen Berger

Cathleen Berger

Strategy expert, focusing in intersection of technology, human rights, global governance, and sustianability