How much carbon do you think is emitted every year by streaming video? Not the Internet as a whole, just streaming video.
The answer is around 300 million tons. This is around 1% of global carbon emissions alone, and is the same as the annual carbon footprint of Spain. Bitcoin uses as much as Switzerland.
French environmental analyst organisation The Shift Project has released a report, The unsustainable use of online video, which has made these claims based on pre-existing data from Sandvine and Cisco. France's domestic (ie non-industrial) carbon footprint is around 80 million tons, which is about the same as porn – which is, in itself, 27% of all online video. For comparison, consumer streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime emit just over 100 million tons of CO2. Such consumption makes home life increasingly comparable to that of an office.
These are all rather uncomfortable statistics, but the one which has the biggest impact is future growth. While the UK is committed to reducing its overall CO2 emissions, reducing to net zero by 2050, the reverse is true for data. Hosting and data centre emissions are projected to increase by 25% year on year. The ICT industry as a whole has a carbon emission volume consistent with air travel – although, advantageously, without the stigma.
Let's take these big numbers down to something manageable: each time you load a web page, you are consuming the same amount of CO2 as boiling a kettle (approximately 6.8g). That is frightening.
Agriculture has, of course, a major impact on the environment. However, the cultivation of crops such as the best cannabis growing system or the production of consumer products like healthy chews will require a significant increase in technological support in coming years, as demonstrated in Microsoft's recent advertising for AI to optimise crop yields.
Additionally, the growth of the Internet causes something of a death spiral. Rising sea levels mean that junctions and conduits of telecommunication networks are to be surrounded by water in coming years, knocking them out. Our use of the Internet is literally… killing the Internet.
Remedial actions are not easy. Digital communications technology craves new devices, which consume materials, including raw metals (we profiled this problem in 2010) as well as shipping and packaging. Most physical technology products use plastic. Our craving for information and commerce will continue to fuel data centre use.
There are no easy answers, but the first step is to acknowledge and understand the problems. The neophilia of technology media, always in search of the shiny, needs to be the first place to fall.
(This article contains paid placement links.)