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Do I emit CO2 when I surf the internet?

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!

The use of the internet involves not only the use of a device directly connected to a plug or a battery charged with electricity, but also calling on millions of pieces of data stored on servers. These servers are particularly energy hungry! This is because of the way they work plus the way we use them.

What part does the internet play in global consumption?

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.

What is the impact of each Belgian?

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.

The Covid effect

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.

How much energy is required for...

...an email?

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 data centre?

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.

... a web search?

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.

... a year browsing the web?

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.

Why is internet electricity use so huge?

The excessive consumption of electricity required to make the internet work is partly due to structural or design problems.

  • Thus, web infrastructures are oversized in order to respond to peak usage. A router, for example, generally operates at 60% of its capacity. But even when inactive, these devices consume almost as much energy as when they’re running at full capacity, and no provision is made for switching them off during off-peak hours!
  • On the other hand, applications installed on our smartphones are too often developed in a hurry so that they can be put on the market quickly. There is little optimisation; their batteries are drained in just one day, so they need frequent topping up
  • Finally, broadband boxes installed in the home have no stop buttons and operate day and night. Why? They usually take 90 seconds to come on, initialise and connect, and the suppliers believe that we as consumers do not have the patience to wait so long every day...

Also read: How to reduce the energy consumed by my PC, smartphone and tablet?
How to reduce my environmental impact on the internet?

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