The High Carbon Cost of the Internet

5 Mins Read

One of these is the impact of the internet on the environment and how it also contributes to climate change. Most of us spend hours glued to screens and devices, but few of us consider the greenhouse gas emissions toll of this behavior.

The internet has become a thoroughly integrated part of our lives that many of us long ago started taking for granted. You’ve probably already responded to a handful of emails today, maybe replied to text messages from friends, or scrolled through social media. But

Advances in internet connectivity have brought profound changes in our world. It has been a blessing and a curse for many. We are connected to thousands of people and more able than ever before to access information, education, social connections, and much more with the click of a button. However, this connectivity has taken its toll in allowing many of us to overindulge in our screen time, dampening the number of face-to-face interactions and connections we make. 

As revolutionary and great as the internet is for humanity, it also has some other hidden costs that we don’t always think about. One of these is the impact of the internet on the environment and how it also contributes to climate change. The idea that sending emails saves paper and makes the world a greener place isn’t exactly all it is cracked up to be.  

Small Costs That Add Up

You may be thinking “But wait, I keep my phone in battery-saving mode and charging it can’t take that much energy!!”

Well, you’re right… to some degree. 

The energy cost of charging a phone or a single internet search really isn’t all that much, maybe a couple of grams of carbon dioxide. But add that up for all of the internet searches, text messages, shared photos, and songs you play in a day. What about over the course of a week or a month? Now multiply that by the 4.1 billion people who are currently using the internet across the globe every day. 

We haven’t even begun to consider the real drivers of internet energy use such as the servers, power banks, and cooling systems that are required to keep everything up and running. The vast majority of the carbon cost of the internet comes from keeping it all going and manufacturing the technology that eventually winds up in someone’s hands. All in all the internet adds up to nearly 4% of global carbon emissions. 

“The energy use in our digital consumption collectively emits the equivalent amount of carbon as the entire airline industry,” says Vaughan Lindsay, CEO of Climate Impact Partners. That’s a ballpark figure — the aviation industry actually creates just over 2% of global carbon emissions. 

Meanwhile, as a matter of comparison, the meat and dairy industry is responsible for 14.5% of the carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere. Using the internet everyday certainly doesn’t out-pollute eating meat, but it is more carbon-intensive than taking an occasional flight. Plus, there’s a good chance you’re going to use the internet to book your flight and while you’re flying, which compounds the issue.     

Bigger, Faster, Better

Of course, this is just the beginning. ISPs — internet service providers — are always striving to offer their customers the best technology has to offer. This can mean faster internet through the installation of fibre optic networks or bigger data packages that allow users to do more with the internet. Even new technology like 5G is starting to be offered in some areas. 

All of these new technologies are great for increasing internet capacity and capabilities, but they are more energy intensive than ever before. Some studies suggest that in growing countries such as China, electricity consumption from the digital sector — including things like data centres and 5G base stations — is set to increase by nearly 300% in the next 15 years. 

The rise of crypto is another cause for environmental concern. The process of mining cryptocurrency is extremely energy intensive and requires large computers and servers working 24/7. Some cities and countries that are friendly to crypto are seeing massive increases in energy consumption. Though many advocates see the potential for a green revolution in things like cryptocurrency, there are many grey areas in their assumptions.  

Helping to Offset the Cost

Recognizing the impact of internet use can be extremely sobering for many users. However, it gives us another opportunity to reflect on our actions and examine how we can work to lower our carbon footprint and ultimately make a more positive difference in the environment. Encouraging power companies and data centres to lean into renewable energy sources may lead to positive changes. You can do this in a variety of ways, from advocating that local government leadership make policy changes all the way down to directly calling your local power company and asking about their renewable energy plans.

Changing the way you use technology can also have a real impact. Small decisions such as not upgrading to a new phone every year can make a profound difference in the manufacturing demand for devices. Sending SMS messages is less energy intensive than Tweeting or posting to other social media outlets. Phone calls and emails use less energy than video chats and shared photo albums. Making conscious decisions about how we use the internet can be both good for the environment and good for our mental health.  

Additionally, you can work towards ensuring that the energy consumption within your own household is more environmentally friendly. Greener, more energy-efficient upgrades to your home are a powerful means of beginning to address your personal carbon footprint. And there are hundreds of things you can do to start that process, from installing more energy-efficient insulation to upgrading your windows to purchasing LED lightbulbs. 

The internet has always been a double-edged sword. It is full of both possibilities and pitfalls. Our lives have been forever changed by the presence of the internet, now we just have to figure out how to live with it. 

Cutting Down on Your Internet Footprint 

If you’d like to cut down on your internet emissions, consider doing the following:

  • Install solar panels on your house to power your home internet use with clean energy.
  • Power down your devices if you’re not using them and dim your display — dimming the display to 70% can save nearly 20% of the energy used by a monitor.
  • With cloud storage and email, delete what you don’t need and download necessary files onto your device so they’re not taking up space in a data centre.
  • Cut down on streaming and do away with autoplay, as streaming video contributes to 60% of internet traffic. 
  • Cut down on emails — if every adult in the UK sent one less email per day, it would save over 16,000 tonnes of carbon a year. 
  • Don’t charge your cell phone overnight — every time the charge level dips below 100%, the phone starts drawing energy again. Instead, charge it to 100% and then unplug it.

Daily small changes like these can add up to huge carbon savings over the life of your internet use. 

Lead image courtesy of Pexels.


  • Amanda Winstead

    Amanda Winstead is a writer from the Portland area with a background in communications and a passion for telling stories. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on Twitter.

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