While in the analogue world most things are now checked for climate and environmental compatibility, the digital world remains comparatively unaffected. Yet, the internet is the sixth largest consumer of electricity on the planet (BUND). 2.5 billion people use the World Wide Web every day (UmweltDialog). Consequently, in Germany alone, internet and computer use cause a consumption of around 24 million tons of CO2 per year (SWR). The entire area of information and communication technology causes around 3.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (EON). And these emissions are predicted to double by 2025 (The Shift Project). New online trends such as streaming or the new 5G cellular standard are boosting energy consumption even more. But most of all, it is the enormous amount of data that we produce every day that causes the emissions: from the manufacture of the devices, the electricity with which they are operated, to cooling the devices that process and store the data.
The physical infrastructure behind URL addresses, the background noise of the information society, needs electricity. For example, a Google search query requires eight-watt hours of electricity to display a list of results to the user after it has travelled in record time through almost 32,000 servers, which in turn devour 150 megawatt hours of energy every day (UmweltDialog). With around 200 million searches worldwide every day, the search engine alone causes about 3.6 kilograms of CO2 per person annually; about as much as a 155-kilometer long-distance bus trip (jetzt). This electricity that mainly powers these large data processing centers quite often comes from non-renewable energies. These data centers are responsible for almost 30 percent of the energy used by the Internet; in Germany alone, there are more than 53,000 data centers with over two million servers (EON) with a total consumption of ten terawatt Hours; that is around two percent of the total electricity demand in Germany (University of Oldenburg). In addition, it is about raw materials that are scarce, expensive and non-renewable, and supply chains that span the whole world; about the production conditions of the devices that make internet access possible in the first place, and about business models of big market sharers, which would be inconceivable without the internet.
It seems, every click creates CO2. It is therefore important to provide society with tools that simplify more efficient, well-considered and, above all, resource-conserving behavior with the internet.
The main solutions for a greener internet involve supplying data centers with green electricity and using the waste heat from the servers. In German data centers today, more than two million servers convert around 13 billion kWh of electricity into heat – a modern heating system (EON). In cold countries like Iceland, Finland, Sweden or Norway, server farms take advantage of the cool outside temperatures to cool their servers. Large corporations such as Apple, Facebook and Google are setting a good example and are already using renewable energies for their data centers as the study Clicking Green by Greenpeace discovered. If digital infrastructures were fed 100 percent by renewable energies, the digital transformation would very likely have a huge share in a more holistic, more sustainable energy industry development.
As an individual, there are many approaches of cutting the carbon footprint of our digital technology: For instance, sustainable search engines like Ecosia or Gexsi offset their CO2 emissions through sustainable investments: The 2009 founded and first German certified B-Corp Ecosia uses the revenue from the searches to plant trees around the world. Thanks to this income, over 89 million trees have now been planted, and the company is now CO2-neutral. Gexsi supports innovative social projects with income generated by their search engine. Every two weeks the income goes to a new project, which is then presented on their website.
Another approach is, when creating a website, to use a provider whose servers run on green electricity – i.e. based on renewable energies. An example is the Green Web Foundation, a non-profit organization from the Netherlands that uses a database of technical parameters from green hosts and the Green Web Check to visualize whether the website is running on green energy or not.
Labels such as Grüner Strom, Ok-Power or The Gold Standard, which offset their greenhouse gas emissions with compensation payments, indicate that companies use electricity generated from renewable energies or comparable CO2-neutral sources, such as gas from landfills (WELT). Possible services include providers of internet connections as well as e-mail service providers, hosters and search engines.
Working offline more often, for example by downloading favorite songs and saving online streaming; or by typing in search terms as text instead of using AI voice assistants, which require more computing effort, can be further solutions. Regularly emptying the trash folder of e-mails and deleting unnecessary e-mails can also help, because storing e-mails on the servers also consumes energy. When choosing IT components, avoid large screens and high-performance graphics cards, as these consume a lot of electricity; furthermore, buying a used device extends its life cycle.
Of course, the internet is not only bad for the climate, but also saves a lot of energy: Instead of flying to appointments, we can hold video conferences. Instead of using an infinite amount of paper, we can work digitally. But there are measures to contribute to reducing CO2 emissions in the digital world – whether it is about compliance with official sustainability goals, the use of renewable energies as a secondary source or a user-focused behavior.
by Marie Klimczak