Ask an environmental expert: what is the internet’s carbon footprint?

Othen it comes our growing carbon footprint makes it easy to blame cars, agriculture or factories. But what about the Internet? Since the onset of COVID-19, screen time has by some estimates increased by 60-80% for most adults,1 and it turns out there’s a lesser-known impact of all those extra hours spent watching Netflix. To find out how our digital habits affect the environment, we turned to Laura Marks, a professor at Simon Fraser University who studies the environmental impact of streaming.

What happens behind the scenes when we stream audio or video?

Streaming has a hardware aspect that we don’t see. We have our devices in front of us, but there are data centers and servers that store the files we watch or listen to2 as well as the underground and satellite networks that transmit them, all completely out of sight but requiring vast amounts of electricity to operate. This is bad for the environment because currently around 80% of our global energy comes from fossil fuels. Although Canada uses a lot of renewable energy sources, many of the servers and networks we access are located in countries that do not.

How does the internet’s carbon footprint compare to that of notorious polluters like airlines?

An estimate found that greenhouse gas emissions created by data centers, networks and our devices, including phones and computers, account for up to 3.8% of the global total, and expect them to increase. The airline industry, by comparison, is responsible for about 2.1%.

When meetings or live events are replaced by video conferences, is energy saved?

Many studies have been conducted on how substituting online activities for commuting could affect energy consumption. At first it tends to decrease, but as new habits take hold we start to see an increase. For example, people who attend an online conference instead of flying are more likely to choose vacation destinations that require a plane to get to. Likewise, people who don’t commute may be more likely to use their car for other things. People tend to replace their habits, so there’s no guarantee that more streaming-based services will lead to lower power consumption.

There has been talk of achieving net neutrality, or an equal Internet for all. Is this a sustainable idea?

Net neutrality is problematic because one of its goals is for every household to be able to stream in high resolution.3 The higher the resolution, the more storage and the more network capacity needed. This is what will cause energy consumption to explode, especially with the increase in global consumption. It is already estimated that by 2030, internet use of all kinds could account for up to 8% of global carbon emissions.4

What must happen to change this trajectory?

A shift to non-fossil energy sources, but I don’t think that will happen fast enough. Instead, we need to change our habits. One of the simplest things people can do to combat internet overconsumption is to use a lower resolution, which can be perfectly handy when using YouTube for streaming music or TV shows. for kids.

For music and movies that you will repeatedly listen to and watch, it is recommended that you purchase the file for a single download or purchase a physical copy. There’s been a surge of interest in vinyls and CDs among young people who didn’t have them the first time around, so I’m really hoping the cool factor of physical media kicks in.


1. A Sandvine report found that global internet traffic increased by almost 40% in the first months of the pandemic.

2. Last year, Netflix reportedly had 17,000 servers spread across 158 countries.

3. According to Comparitech data, 91.9% of Canadian internet users stream TV shows and movies.

4. By 2040, it is expected to reach 14%.

As told to Alex Tesar. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Laura Marks is the founder of Vancouver’s Small Media Festival, which promotes low-bandwidth films to help reduce CO2 emissions from streaming.

Irma Kniivila

Irma Kniivila is an illustrator and artist who recently completed projects for Marvel and Boom! Joyride from the studio.

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