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Is the Web Killing the Environment?23.08.2019

By ditching material things in favor of digital solutions, we were supposed to not only lead more comfortable lives, but more sustainable as well. But mounting evidence seems to suggest that the shift has done little, if anything, to make the planet better.  

“Out of sight, out of environmental mind”—seems that there might be some truth to this paraphrase of the popular saying. After all, the digital looms to us as environmentally-friendly, at least much more than the physical, tangible. Or at least had loomed. Barely a couple of years ago, when streaming services were still the underdog, culture was pretty much based on physical media—tapes, CDs, vinyls, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, even VHS tapes. Print newspapers in plastic wrap, with inserts included with special editions. Plastic-laden media, what today looks like artifacts for collectors. Compared with all that, consuming culture and entertainment via the Internet seemed infinitely more practical and environmentally-friendly, as it promised to offset the burden that the mass manufacture of all these things placed upon the planet. Thus, the choice seemed straightforward—digitalize everything! 

Feigning Sustainability

And indeed, many researchers and academics saw in the seemingly immaterial an opportunity for a green revolution. In a study published five years ago (and commissioned by Google), researchers from Northwestern University argued that “video streaming can be more energy efficient and emit less carbon dioxide than the use of DVDs.” Interestingly enough, the study compared the footprint of online streaming against watching the film at home on a purchased DVD, renting it at a local store, and receiving it through the mail. The project compared the energy used to stream a movie compared to the amount needed to manufacture and play back a DVD, including the energy costs of production, transport, and powering playback devices. The results clearly indicated streaming as the greener option. Furthermore, the researchers also argued that shifting from DVDs to streaming would slash carbon dioxide emissions in 2011 by 8.6 billion kilograms. Well, “Full stream ahead, then!” one would be tempted to think. The consumption of music was, and still is, unsurprisingly, subject to similar deliberations—as evidenced by a bevy of texts dealing with the subject at length, published around ten years back. In 2010, A Greener Festival, a non-profit involved with efforts to curtail the adverse impact of music festivals and events on the environment, lamented the fact that as much as 75% of all music purchases worldwide involved physical media, while only 25% were downloads, citing prior research by Cranfield University’s Tim Chapman, who argued that the consumption of music record on physical media is much more harmful to the environment, primarily due to the huge amounts of plastics its manufacture and distribution involved. 

Better, Meaning Worse

“Careful what you wish for,” goes another popular saying. Well, as it turns out, those wishing for the death of physical media formats got their wish—to some extent, at least. Recent data suggests that streaming revenues surpassed traditional record sales already back in 2017. A couple of months back, meanwhile, news agencies around the world reported that video streaming platforms finally managed to outnumber cable television in terms of subscriber count. Has culture “from the cloud” indeed proven beneficial to the environment? Well. Experts and recent reports claim that the shift toward digital distribution has been anything but green.

As we moved our collections of records, films, and newspapers into the clouds, our media libraries transcended physical shelves—they became endless repositories.

“While we can no longer imagine our lives without computers or the Internet, both the mass manufacture of electronic hardware and the transmission of data across global networks and grids both carry a considerable carbon footprint,” warns Dr. Jacek Pniewski of the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of Physics, and advisor to the editorial team of the “Climate Science” online magazine. What sort of numbers are we talking about? “Companies measure the total impact manufacturing, transporting, usage, and recycling  their products using a metric called the CO2 equivalent, reaching all the way from a couple of hundred kilograms of CO2 equivalent for an average notebook, to a couple or more than a dozen tonnes for an average server. Estimates say that operational emissions make up nearly 90% of that footprint, and most of these emissions are generated by the production of electricity needed to power the Web. If we take into account the skyrocketing number of computers and devices making up the necessary telecommunications infrastructure, the carbon footprint of the broadly defined Internet will quickly become staggering,” Pniewski adds. 

Asked about the extent of the problem, Zbigniew Karaczun, a professor at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences and expert for the Climate Coalition, brought up even more alarming data. “The IT industry already is one of the most prolific sources of greenhouse gases (GHG). According to estimates, around 4% of the total GHG emissions are produced by that particular sector,” Karaczun says. “The more important thing, however, is that these emissions keep growing, bucking the trend we’ve seen take across other industries, by about 9% year over year. This growth, naturally, derives from the amount of electricity needed to power computers and the rest of the infrastructure,” the professor adds. And streaming seems to lie at the heart of the problem. Why? “Because it requires a vast array of servers, data centers, and networks operating around the clock, seven days a week, to service clients wherever they are. This makes the emissions much higher compared to those produced by what we call passive computer usage,” the expert explains. 

The Leading Culprits

“Time for an Internet detox,” appealed journalist Joanna Spiller in a recent post on Citing the Climate Crisis. The Unsustainable Use of Online Video report, Spiller argued that the flow of digital data is currently responsible for over 50% of the overall impact of digital technology on the environment. With a four-percent share in total greenhouse gas emissions, the figure suggested by Professor Karaczun, the IT industry is responsible for more emissions than commercial aviation. But how did the Internet suddenly become so power-hungry? Primarily because of that one thing that technooptimists failed to take into account, but experts have since come to acknowledge—scale. As we moved our collections of records, films, and newspapers into the clouds, our media libraries transcended physical shelves—they became endless repositories, assembled on demand from vast suites of titles.

As it turns out, streaming songs may be doing more harm to the planet than all CDs, tapes, and vinyls together.

Another reason is right there in the title of the report Spiller cited. Video accounts for 80% of all online content, and its energy requirements are much higher. According to calculations, fifteen minutes spent online generates as much CO2 as a kilometer-long car ride. It should come as no surprise, then, that online video streaming has generated 306 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018 alone! These staggering numbers were driven by more than just fan-favorite TV series served by popular VOD platforms—they account for only a third of those emissions. Streaming online porn is responsible for another third—meaning that pornography generates as much carbon dioxide as Belgium, a fact recently reported by news outlets across the globe. And the increasingly widespread availability of 8K content will make matters even worse, driving up demand for ever new data centers. 

Search “Carbon Footprint”

If video is the chief culprit, then maybe music and other forms of digital content should be exempt from deliberations on the horribly adverse effects that streaming has on the planet? Not so fast. The dangers of mass online audio streaming have already been confirmed by a handful of studies. As it turns out, streaming songs may be doing more harm to the planet than all CDs, tapes, and vinyls together. Spotify users themselves have already listened to 15 billion hours of content, forcing the platform owners to shutter their own servers and move to Google Cloud—which is based off vast data centers with kilometers of cabling and power-hungry cooling systems. Naturally, the advent of streaming has not been without its benefits. It has indeed slashed the amount of plastics used in the manufacture and distribution of music, and significantly so—from 58 million kilograms in 1977 to just 8 millions in 2018. However, if we focus solely on greenhouse gas emissions, then the data will be much more scathing, as it seems that streaming may have well doubled those emissions, from 140 million kilograms of GHG emitted in the late 1970s and 1980s, up to to around 200–350 million kilograms in 2016 (and that’s only in the United States). 

Email, another modern necessity with quite the carbon footprint. Every email message generates around 4 grams of CO2 emissions.

Let’s move on to another, seemingly even more innocent, form of entertainment. Since streaming both video and audio turn the servers red hot (triggering their extensive cooling systems), then maybe at least online text sources are more green. And indeed, ebooks should theoretically be more eco-friendly than ordinary, paper books. Especially when buying more than 20 of the latter per year (an e-reader’s carbon footprint is 168 kg of CO2, while a single paper book generates around 7.5 kg). But readership has been steadily going down, with much of our reading moving online. And what does research have to say about our run-of-the-mill online activity? Google estimates that an average search query generates the same emissions as a 60-watt bulb in 17 seconds, around 0.2 grams of CO2. While that may not seem all that much, when we multiply it by 63,000 searches performed every second, the adverse impact will quickly become palpable. And let’s not forget email, another modern necessity with quite the carbon footprint. Every email message generates around 4 grams of CO2 emissions. Currently, around 300 billion emails are sent every years—and the number is poised to rise. This means that even junk emails are increasingly becoming a threat to the planet. 

“We also ought to take note of several paradoxes that few ever expected,” adds Professor Karaczun. “The Internet was supposed to slash emissions by allowing people to take care of matters remotely instead of in person. But, as it turned out, things didn’t exactly work out that way. The popularity of online shopping, for one, ended up increasing emissions, because people began ordering single items that then had to be shipped to them via parcel services. We’ve replaced the emissions produced by driving cars to stores with emissions from delivery trucks. And the ease of online shopping resulted in a staggering rise of GHG emissions from transport,” the professor notes. 


Once again, we circle back to the question of scale, as the problem doesn’t exactly lie with watching a movie or listening to a record, but rather with universal, global access to media libraries available 24/7. In light of that, should we consider putting some sort of limits on online content consumption in the future? 

“Naturally, we can and should call on people to cut down their online habits, especially given the fact that pornography accounts for the majority of streamed online video. But it’s hard to see people simply giving up what they have already gotten used to. That’s why it’s more important to shift the IT sector toward reliance on renewables,” offers Professor Karaczun. “In the context of the IT industry, we also ought to remember that mass-producing consumer devices, including computers and mobile phones, is also a considerable source of emissions. The process also utilizes rare earth metals, which are increasingly becoming a strategic resource. That is why we should be making electronics to be much more durable, to last longer, and fully recyclable,” he adds.

Some companies have been moving their data centers to colder climate countries, such as Iceland or Finland, thus cutting their carbon footprint and air-conditioning costs.

Dr. Pniewski, on the other hand, sees alternative energy sources and renewables as key to halting the rapid progress of climate change, and considers hardware-related issues as secondary. “It’s difficult to reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing, because it involves the process in its entirety, including extracting ‘raw’ materials, such as ores, and their subsequent processing,” he says. “What we can actually influence, however, is the source of electricity we use. Using power generated in coal-fired plants carries a large carbon footprint, whereas renewables have a much smaller footprint, at times even close to none. A handful of corporate players, such as Google or Microsoft, have already begun working toward shifting their sprawling data centers toward ‘green energy’ or offsetting their own carbon footprint by embracing reforestation, among other efforts. After all, power generation accounts for around 70% of all global carbon dioxide emissions,” notices the University of Warsaw scholar. He is also optimistic about the new opportunities brought forth by technology itself. 

“We ought to remember that telecommunications may still help us reduce our carbon footprints in other industries by optimizing a number of processes, for example replacing business trips taken on airplanes with high-resolution videoconferencing in order to cut fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Recently, we’ve also seen a number of ideas based on using AI for these purposes, to react to events across the globe in real time. The Internet isn’t bad in and of itself,” Pniewski stresses.

Well, what about 5G networks, slowly creeping their way toward our devices, promising even greater speeds for online video streaming? “Some fear that the total power draw of all Internet of Things devices will be impossible to cover with the present output of currently operational power stations, and will become more difficult in light of the planned closures of coal-fired plants, expected to be replaced with new PV, wind, and hydroelectric facilities,” adds the University of Warsaw expert.

What else can we do to offset the harmful effects of our online activities? Some companies have been moving their data centers to colder climate countries, such as Iceland or Finland, thus cutting their carbon footprint and air-conditioning costs. Others have been developing more energy-efficient solutions, like Blackle—a search engine based on Google, which uses an all-black background and white fonts. All of these efforts, however, will not be enough without serious action undertaken at the highest level of policymaking. 

“It seems that without greater awareness in policymaking circles, without novel, zero-emission power sources, and more sustainable, zero-emission manufacturing processes, the Internet will continue to push us toward a climate catastrophe. And frankly, there’s no actual way for us to halt the forward march of streaming. It’s emblematic of the 21st century, the age of digitization and telecommunications,” Pniewski states. This brings us back to the question of what efforts we should pursue in order to halt or at least slow the progress of climate change. We need to know exactly where the international elites stand on the issue and what their plan of action going forward is. What else can we ourselves do, aside changing our own wasteful habits? Put whatever pressure we can to force those in power into action.

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