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The average Internet user spends 3,230 hours online every year. Here's the carbon footprint of that.

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The average Internet user spends 3,230 hours online every year. Here’s the carbon footprint of that.

A new analysis suggests that decarbonizing the electric grid and keeping electronic devices in use longer could cut the environmental impact of digital activities
May 14, 2024

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The average Internet spends 40% of their waking hours online—and Internet activities take up 40% of their carbon budget, according to a new analysis. Decarbonizing electricity and keeping electronic devices in circulation longer could help keep the climate impact of Internet use in check, the study suggests.

Digital content is disembodied, so it’s easy to assume that it has little impact in the real world. But recently, researchers have begun to quantify the surprisingly hefty climate impacts of digital technology such as global data centers, video conferences, and cryptocurrency.

The new study adds a view on the topic that has been missing until now: a bottom-up analysis of the climate impact of digital activities and their contribution to individual carbon footprints.

The researchers conducted a life-cycle assessment of all the infrastructure and electricity required to underpin the online activities of the average Internet user: 3,230 hours of digital content consumption per year, including 730 hours of web surfing, 894 hours of social media, 833 hours of video streaming, 566 hours of music streaming, and 207 hours of video conferencing on smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, and televisions.

“We adopt a cradle-to-grave scope considering raw materials extraction, manufacturing, distribution, operation, and end-of-life management of all the major components of the Internet network, including data centers, data transmission networks, CPE, and end-user devices,” the researchers explain in a paper published in Nature Communications.

The average Internet user’s digital consumption results in the emission of 229 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year, the researchers found. That amounts to about 3-4% of average per capita greenhouse gas emissions, in line with the intuitive sense that events in the ether of the Internet have relatively little impact in the physical world.

 

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New study quantifies the carbon emissions of virtual conferences

 

But considering these numbers in light of an individual’s fair share of carbon emissions paints a much starker picture. The remaining carbon budget consistent with a high likelihood of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C is just 501 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Current internet use uses up, on average 41% of that budget.

The researchers also calculated the impact of digital consumption against the planet’s carrying capacity—the amount of extraction Earth systems can sustain without irreversible changes—for 15 other indicators. The average person’s Internet use eats up 55% of their fair share of the planet’s mineral and metal resources, as well as 20% of the per capita carrying capacity for freshwater nutrient pollution and more than 10% of the per capita carrying capacity for marine nutrient pollution, particulate air pollution, ecotoxicity, and fossil resources use.

“Overall, these results suggest that in some impact categories, Internet consumption could leave little room for impacts linked to basic needs like food and transport (recall that all anthropogenic activities should jointly operate within the safe operating space defined by the Earth’s carrying capacity), raising concerns about the sustainability level of the current system,” the researchers write.

Electricity—for both manufacturing and operating electronic devices—is the biggest contributor to the climate impact of Internet use. So decarbonizing the electrical grid is a powerful strategy, with the potential to slash the carbon footprint of digital content consumption to just 12% of the per capita carrying capacity.

But decarbonizing the grid would leave the Internet’s impact on metal and mineral resources pretty much untouched. Reducing the use of resources there requires reducing the amount of material mined for electronic devices—by keeping devices in circulation longer or recycling the minerals and metals they contain. “Doubling the lifespan of electronic devices holds the potential to diminish mineral and metal resources use from 55% of the per capita carrying capacity to 29%,” the researchers write.

Source: Istrate R. et al.  “The environmental sustainability of digital content consumption.” Nature Communications 2024.

Image: © Anthropocene Magazine

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