Last updated: September 2014
The Internet's ecological footprint
From social media to music, streaming video, email and commerce, we are increasingly moving much of our lives online. As a consequence global internet traffic has increased dramatically. In 2002, it amounted to 100 Gigabytes per second but by 2012 it had reached 12,000 Gigabytes per second. This is expected to increase threefold by 2017.
This data flows through an infrastructure which includes end-user devices (for example laptops and phones), telecommunication networks and data centre facilities.
According to the Digital Power Group, this infrastructure uses about 1,500 Terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity annually: 10% of world electricity generation. This is equal to the electricity consumption of Japan and Germany combined, or 50% more than the energy used by the global aviation industry.1
Viewing it in personal terms helps to give some perspective. Charging up a tablet or smartphone may require a negligible amount of electricity, however if we include the electricity consumption across the whole infrastructure that delivers the signal to it we get a very different picture. Using your device to watch an hour of video per week for a year consumes annually the same electricity as one refrigerator uses in a year.
Greenhouse gas emissions
In terms of carbon footprint, the Boston Consulting Group estimated that internet infrastructure was responsible for releasing 0.9 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG) per year in 2011 or 1.9% of world emissions. Despite expected efficiency gains, the internet’s carbon footprint is projected to rise to 1.3 billion tonnes of GHG by 2020 or 2.3% of world emissions.
The footprint of end-user devices accounted for 61% of the internet infrastructure’s total emissions in 2011, equivalent to 0.55 billion tonnes of GHG. Telecommunication networks contributed 22% of total emissions (0.20 billion tonnes of GHG in 2011), while data centres’ carbon footprint counted for 17% of total emissions (0.16 billion tonnes of GHG).
The bigger picture
However, if we want to assess the global environmental impact of the internet infrastructure we need to consider that each piece of equipment that powers the web (laptops, servers, antennas, cables, modems, amplifiers, stations etc.) has been manufactured using natural resources such as water, oil and metals. Furthermore we need to consider that several pollutants have been released into the atmosphere and water at different stages.
Which companies are storing all of our data, and how are they getting the energy? Greenpeace’s latest report5 looks at whether those companies are using dirty or clean energy.
While shifting businesses to an online model can create significant gains in energy efficiency, the energy appetite of the internet continues to outstrip those gains thanks to its dramatic growth.
But there is good news to report: since Greenpeace’s last Clicking Clean report in 2012,4 leading data centre operators have taken key steps towards building a green internet, particularly those companies that have committed to build a 100% renewably-powered platform: Apple, Google and Facebook.
Unfortunately, despite the leadership and innovation demonstrated by green internet pioneers, other companies lag far behind, with little sense of urgency, choosing to paper over their growing dirty energy footprints with status quo solutions such as renewable energy credits and carbon offsets, while rapidly expanding their infrastructure.
Other internet companies have refused to pay even lip service to sustainability, and are simply buying dirty energy straight from the grid. Those companies, most notably Amazon Web Services, are choosing how to power their infrastructure based solely on lowest electricity prices, without consideration of the impact their growing electricity footprints have on human health or the environment. Twitter also lags behind.
Greenpeace’s report rates seven companies featured in our Internet product guides: Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Amazon and Twitter. The leaders are Apple, Facebook and Google.
Clean Energy Index – an average of the amount of renewable energy used across the company’s facilities.
ET – Energy Transparency (Scope and level of detail made publicly available on energy consumption of IT infrastructure.)
REC – Renewable Energy Commitment & Siting Policy (Commitment to powering their data centres with renewable energy, including infrastructure siting criteria and investment decisions to increase clean energy use.)
EE – Energy Efficiency & Mitigation (Strategies and measurable progress to mitigate the demand for dirty energy generated by IT infrastructure.)
RD – Renewable Deployment & Advocacy (Measurable progress and commitment to renewable energy investments and advocacy for ambitious policies that encourage wide scale renewable energy generation and use.)
Lobbying against climate change
The Greenpeace report also revealed that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo! Inc were members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organisation that was lobbying against renewable energy laws. ALEC also targeted the US Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to limit global warming pollution from coal-fired power plants.
In addition to their membership in ALEC, Google and Facebook offered political contributions to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank funded by fossil fuel interests with a history of denying the reality of climate change.