Last updated on 4 January 2021
We tend to forget about this, but every web search, every email sent or received, and every status update on Facebook means the consumption of electricity and therefore the emission of greenhouse gases!
Even before the Covid-19 epidemic, the electricity consumption of the internet represented as much as that of Great Britain! Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) accounted for 6 to 10% of global electricity consumption, or 4% of our greenhouse gas emissions. And this figure increases by 5 to 7% each year!
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, internet use accounts for 3.7% of global emissions, i.e. the equivalent of all air traffic in the world. And this figure is expected to double by 2025 (excluding the Covid-19 effect).
In concrete terms, this represents, for the internet alone, an average of 400 g of CO2 emitted per inhabitant each year.
But this is only an average: access to ICT varies greatly from one region of the world to another. Emissions per person are therefore much higher in an industrialised and highly 'connected' country. And they are only increasing.
|As of 20 October 2020, the earth had 7,796,949,710 inhabitants, 63.2% of whom were internet users. Between 2000 and 2020, the number of internet users multiplied by 6 in Europe, by 21 in Asia and by 139 in Africa.|
A large international IT company estimated (prior to Covid-19) that internet usage in 2022 would amount to 3,650 GB of data per person per year in the United States (with online video accounting for the largest share of this data volume). This internet use will result in the consumption of 54.7 kWh of electricity and the emission of 15.36 kg of CO2.
|Extrapolating these figures to Belgium, this equates (for 11.46 million inhabitants) to 176,000 tonnes of CO2. For Brussels and its Region (1.223 million inhabitants), these emissions will amount to 18,785 tonnes.|
By way of comparison, each Belgian emits between 12 and 16 tonnes of CO2 per year, all uses combined. As many as 12 to 16 return trips from Brussels to New York by plane.
With the introduction of teleworking, teleconferencing and home confinement leading to more passive leisure activities, the volume of online data has exploded. So much so that some telephone operators have temporarily removed the monthly limit on data downloads, out of 'digital solidarity'.
This will require an upward revision of all of the above forecasts for growth in internet energy consumption.
A one-megabyte email (= 1 MB) during its total life cycle emits 20 g of CO2 , i.e. the equivalent of an old 60 W lamp lit for 25 min. Twenty emails a day per user over one year, create the same CO2 emissions as a car travelling 1000 km.
A single router consumes 10,000 watts (10 kW). A very large data centre comes close to 100 million watts (100 MW), or one-tenth of the output of a thermal power station. In fact, on top of the consumption required to run the servers, the electronic circuits must be cooled using air conditioning.
The search for a web address represents 3.4 Wh (0.8 g CO2 equivalent). But the total rises to 10 g after an internet search producing five results.If a web user makes an average of 2.6 web searches per day, this user can be extrapolated to be emitting 9.9 kg of CO2 equivalent per year.
When browsing the web, an average internet user yearly needs about 365 kWh electricity and 2,900 litres of water, which corresponds to the CO2 that is emitted when you travel a good 1,400 km by car.
The excessive consumption of electricity required to make the internet work is partly due to structural or design problems.
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