The Environmental Impact of the Internet

Q&A with Lars Larsson, CEO of Varnish Software

Q. We hear a lot about sustainability in terms of the physical footprint we’re leaving on the planet. But how does sustainability translate to the online world?

Sustainability has shot up corporate, political and societal agendas over the last decade. Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year (and fellow Swede), Greta Thunberg, has ferociously defended Planet Earth and called for more individual awareness and governmental action to counteract the devastating and cumulative consequences of our decisions on the world.

Flying, driving, heating our homes and single-use plastics have all received due attention. The aviation industry, in particular, has become a prime example of the irreversible harm caused by our jet setting tendencies – 16,000 planes generate more than 600 million tonnes of CO2 in our atmosphere every year. However, very few are aware that every scroll, click and web surfing session also contributes to climate change and the generation of CO2. As we become an increasingly digital society, obsessed with same-day deliveries, the instant streaming of content and bite-sized news on social platforms, our usage of the web quickens in pace. So does our impact on the climate.

Lars Larsson, CEO of Varnish Software

Q: How exactly does our penchant for online shopping and video streaming equate to CO2 emissions?

As of October 2019, there were approximately 4.3 billion active internet users globally. Undoubtedly, most of us will be using the internet every day, for a number of hours each day. During those hours, think of how many websites you visit or emails you send/receive. Believe it or not, the average website produces 6.8g of carbon per page view, according to A 1MB email, during its total lifecycle, emits 20g of CO2. Suddenly all that web browsing and email tennis with friends becomes a bit worrying.

With every click and page view, datacentres the world over (those physical spaces that house and power our favorite social media platforms and brand websites) consume energy. The cumulative impact of this is staggering – accounting for some 3.5% of global energy use. Experts suggest datacenters will soon surpass the entire aviation industry in their contribution to climate heating. This is only going to increase unless we do something about it. And right now, the impact of screen time on our world has, relatively speaking, flown under the radar.

Q: How bad is the online sustainability problem in reality?

It’s worth emphasizing that the online emissions figures we’ve explored here are based on our current use of the internet. But what happens when we’re streaming films and TV shows in ultra-high definition, in a matter of seconds? While it might be exciting for users, it’s a frightening prospect for our planet. More digital activity means more clicks and page views and more carbon-fuelled data centers. That’s not to say we can’t enjoy technology for the innovation, convenience and entertainment it provides. Rather, we need to take a more environmentally conscious approach to how we’re using technology from this point onwards.

environment Earth Day In the hands of trees growing seedlings. Bokeh green Background Female hand holding tree on nature field grass Forest conservation concept

As we stand on the brink of a 5G revolution, our perception of what the internet is and what it can do will shift significantly. Many of the applications enabled by 5G infrastructure will no doubt benefit mankind and contribute to a better, more efficient and safer world. Yet it will also require more datacentres, servers and energy. We must ensure that all these new services leave a minimal carbon footprint and consume as little energy as possible.

Q. How should online businesses approach sustainability over the next decade and beyond?

In Sweden, we’ve invented our own word to convey the environmental guilt felt when flying – ‘flygskam’. Perhaps we need to invent our own word for the damage we’re potentially doing to Earth through our online behaviour, if we’re going to take the issue just as seriously.

Thomas Stocker, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and former co-chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that 2020 is a crucial year for making a dent in the climate change issue. If CO2 emissions continue to rise beyond this point, then our most ambitious mitigation goals will become unachievable.

This leaves us with very little time; change needs to start happening now to bring emissions down. Giving up the internet is obviously not a realistic remedy, but a rethink in approach for businesses (and more awareness from consumers) can certainly go a long way.

As we start to focus more on what our online actions mean for the environment, there are fortunately solutions that already exist that can help businesses reduce their carbon footprint, despite investing in the next giant technology leap.

One of the fastest and most efficient ways to reduce your online CO2 footprint is caching software. Through caching, digital content doesn’t have to be recalled or reproduced every time a visitor to a website asks for it. Imagine visiting your favourite news website and making a request to view a certain page, with the information then being fetched from a certain file on a server each time you click on a new page.

Caching is essentially a Xerox machine for online content. From a single copy, it can produce hundreds of thousands of copies per second from a single server. Information is usually fetched and produced from a number of different systems. If this process has to happen every time someone requests it from a web page, it would require a lot of computing power and servers, and take up to 10-15 seconds before being presented to the visitor. Just imagine having to wait 10-15 seconds for your latest TV show to buffer and play every time you wanted to watch it.

However, by storing all digital content in caching software, copies can be delivered to your phone, laptop or web browser very quickly, without delay. This saves significantly on the number of servers and energy required to power websites.

For any online business in today’s digital age, think about how you’re building your website in a way that doesn’t consume so much energy or compute power. The difference between a website that is more environmentally conscious versus one that’s not is huge. We’ve seen websites for large companies produce up to 500 times more CO2 than their global competitors. To make sure we ease the strain the world-wide-web has on the physical world around us, we need to make sure our habits have as little impact as possible. It can be done, with a little thoughtfulness and innovation.


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