When we think about the industries that contribute to climate change, we often criticize cars, manufacturing, animal agriculture, and heating and keeping the lights on in homes and businesses. We rarely consider the impact that Internet usage has on our environment.
As a freelance writer, there are days when it feels like I’m online for ten to twelve hours. My phone is never far from reach in case I need to check my email. Without the Internet, doing my job would be more challenging—sure, it would be possible, but things would move much slower, and it would be much harder to connect with clients and other writers outside of my city. Like so many people, I basically depend on the Internet to do my job.
Last week, it was unseasonably warm in my city—a circumstance that is becoming more and more common. As I was working on my laptop, I began wondering just how much carbon was pouring into the atmosphere as a result of our collective Internet usage. With billions of people around the world spending hours online every day, it had to be contributing somehow.
All the information we access online is stored in relatively few data centers around the world, which are literal warehouse buildings packed ceiling to the floor with servers. Each time you stream a movie on Netflix, store a file in your Google Drive, or write articles for online magazines like this one, you have to “pass through” these data centers before accessing what you need. Naturally, data centers gobble up huge amounts of energy (a vast majority of which are not renewable) to run the machines and also for air conditioning to prevent overheating.
In comparison to other contributors, the carbon footprint of the Internet is relatively small, but it’s expected to grow in the coming years. By various estimates, Internet usage accounts for about 1-2% of carbon emissions—basically, it’s comparable to the carbon footprint of air travel. But as more people gain access and get connected, it’s expected to surpass the footprint of air travel. Right now, it’s a small slice of the pie, but it’s only going to get bigger as time goes on.
Seeing this statistic felt a little ironic—mainly because I’ve learned so much about climate change and environmental activism through the Internet. And the Internet is the tool that I’ve used to write about these issues and inform others.
Not only does Internet usage contribute to climate change, but the infrastructure that keeps us online is also actually threatened by climate change. It’s a twisted cycle—we use this tool to communicate, conduct business, and to spread the word about important issues of our time. And yet if we don’t take action to lower carbon emissions and protect ourselves against worst-case climate change scenarios, the system that we use to maintain those connections could be affected.
When you consider how climate change might affect the Internet, the first thing that comes to mind might be more frequent service interruptions due to natural disasters and severe weather. But there’s more to it than that. Buried cables could also be damaged by rising sea levels. In fact, researchers estimate that approximately 4,000 miles of buried fiber optic cable in the US could be underwater in just fifteen years if sea levels rise in line with current predictions. Yes, these cables are technically designed to be water-resistant—but they’re not waterproof. They were not built to function underwater. If thousands of miles of these cables are damaged, it could severely restrict Internet access in major coastal cities, especially along the east coast.
But what about underwater cables on the sea floor? Those should be fine, right? After all, they were definitely designed to function underwater, so you might expect that rising sea levels wouldn’t affect them. However, they can be seriously damaged by underwater landslides, which can occur after heaving rainfall and flooding.
Here’s the frustrating thing about how the Internet contributes to climate change—aside from simply moderating our Internet usage, it’s tough to see how this particular problem could be solved. Thankfully, the emissions impact isn’t huge, but more people would actually benefit from having Internet access—in fact, the UN actually defines Internet access as a human right. As far as protecting Internet infrastructure while the sea levels rise, companies can take steps to start safeguarding cables over the next few years—but since this particular issue is not getting much mainstream attention, how much these companies are actually doing is unclear.
In the meantime, maybe this can serve as a reminder that most of us could probably benefit from logging off a little more often. In the New Year, I’d like to spend less time online, and continue taking steps to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Now, I can see that these two goals go hand in hand. Although we don’t discuss this particular issue as often as going vegan or zero-waste to be “green,” maybe all of those hours scrolling on social media aren’t really part of an environmentally friendly lifestyle. If it’s better for our mental health and the environment, why not give it a try?
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