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Sustainability and the Internet

Sophie Whyte
Junior Strategist

Sustainability is something that most of us are aware of but also something that we don’t always connect to our use of the Internet.

Sustainability avoids the depletion of natural resources and aims to maintain an ecological balance. Using ‘sustainable’ resources is using materials that can be maintained at a certain rate to prevent further disruption of the environment or ecosystem.

The rapid increase in the use of social media and the continued growth of the Internet has required large data centres to sustain this use. The average user now spends 6 hours and 43 minutes online each day, spending more than 40% of our lives on the Internet. Data centres are the backbone of the Internet, processing and storing huge amounts of information and they require huge amounts of energy to do this, as well as to cool them down and prevent overheating. 

Before COVID-19, the global energy use of the Internet resulted in the same amount of global carbon emissions as the aviation industry; this is estimated to be around 2%.

 Carbon emissions: Aviation vs. the Internet

Flight shaming has dominated the media in recent years, with celebrities publicly criticised for their use of private jets and the irony of this highlighted when they are travelling to talk about sustainability or the environment. All this media attention has meant that more of us are aware of the impact of aviation on the global carbon footprint, while comparatively, we know very little about the impact of the Internet.

One thing we do know is that the Internet is 24/7 and used globally by 5.40 billion as of August 2022.


Emails, page views and Google searches

OVO Energy, an energy supplier on a journey to zero carbon, calculated that every unnecessary email has a carbon footprint of about 1g of carbon emissions (0.000001 tonnes of CO2 equivalent).

It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s important to consider that the average person sends approximately ten ‘unnecessary’ emails per week and, in total, there are over 64 million ‘unnecessary’ emails sent by Brits every day. Added up, we can see that if every person in the UK sent one less email a day, we would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

This is equivalent of 81,152 flights from London to Madrid.

The Top 10 ‘unnecessary’ emails:

  1. Thank you
  2. Thanks
  3. Have a good weekend
  4. Received
  5. Appreciated
  6. Have a good evening
  7. Did you get/see this?
  8. Cheers
  9. You too
  10. LOL

Source: OVO Energy

When it comes to browsing the web, consider how many pages you view every day.

Wholegrain Digital estimates that the current industry average of CO2 emissions per page view is 1.76g. The carbon emissions emitted by 4.5 page views is the same as charging a smartphone.

Google has calculated that each search uses 0.2g of carbon. Again, this doesn’t seem like a lot, but Google processes 3.5 billion searches every day and the average person is thought to do 3-4 searches every day. The 3.5 billion searches result in 700 tonnes of carbon emissions every day, which is the same as 6,368,900 miles driven by an average passenger vehicle.

While 77% of searches are conducted on Google, other search engines are also contributing to our daily data generation. Worldwide there are 5 billion searches a day.


Internet corporations are starting to do their bit 

Many of the global corporations responsible for the heavy use of the Internet are aware of their impact and have started to implement measures that reduce their carbon footprint. Google has designed and built energy-efficient data centres.  They now use 100% renewable energy sources for data centres and have committed to sourcing carbon-free energy.

Many other organisations are following suit, with Microsoft pledging to remove ‘all of the carbon’ that it has emitted and with Apple’s data centres also running on entirely renewable energy. Social media corporations are also jumping on the bandwagon, with Facebook aiming to use 100% renewable energy sources in 2020.

Possibly as a consequence, renewable energy is set to expand by 50% in the next five years.


The effect of COVID-19 

Many organisations are now running their operations remotely after the outbreak of Coronavirus. Many of us are now stuck at home with limited ways of occupying our time. As a result, Netflix has seen an increase in use which they have said could be from 35% to 60% more. The European Commissioner has asked Netflix to reduce the video quality and the strain on Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

With all of us reliant on the Internet, now more than ever, it is important to be as efficient as possible and consider the sustainability of the Internet. If everyone changed the way they used the Internet, we could make a big difference!

There are many things that you yourself can do to limit your digital carbon footprint. One of our partners, Footprint Digital, has outlined their top 10 tips for being digitally sustainable. They talk about many opportunities to reduce our waste.


How can you help?

We’ve outlined some things that you can do right away with minimal effort to ensure that your use of the Internet is sustainable. As well as considering each online search and page view that you do, we recommend optimising your email inbox and, if applicable, your website.

Reduce the footprint of your email activity 

  • Avoid the ‘reply all’ button whenever possible
  • Unsubscribe from unwanted emails
  • Reduce the size of attachments
  • Avoid resending chain emails
  • Avoid sending ‘unnecessary’ emails (Think before you thank)


Think about your website’s carbon footprint

  • Choose green hosting providers for your website
  • Improve the SEO and UX of your website
  • Reduce the size of images and videos on your website; reducing the size of your website
  • Use the Website Carbon Calculator to see how energy efficient your website is
  • Follow Wholegrain Digital’s advice for designing sustainable websites


Have a call

We’d love to talk to you about how Make it Clear can support your organisation. Book a call here.


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