In the late 1980s, in a remote corner of Switzerland,  a computer Scientist called Tim Berner’s Lee was grappling with the complexities of sharing detailed scientific research across different computers.

The problem was simple: how could different computers share the same information without a person having to login on to one specific computer in order to see a certain item of information. 

And the solution was, believe it or not, The Information Mesh. But it didn’t sound quite right. The words didn’t gel together, or roll off the tongue. It could easily be misconstrued as The Information Mess, which would be totally counter-productive to the aims and purpose of the project. 

Back to the drawing board.  More coding, more proposals. Until from the gloom the World Wide Web emerged into the light. 3 words. Simple, effective and descriptive. The www, world wide web, that prefixes countless billions of internet sites was created, giving rise to the http language that billions of websites and networks use today to.

The birth of the World Wide Web

The world wide web has revolutionized how we communicate across the world, it sought to give rise to a new world of collaboration, a positive step into humanity’s future and one that would see us working together more collaboratively for the common good. And it’s evolving in ways that we can’t even begin to understand. Berner-Lee has consistently argued for a free, open an independent web. In an interview with Time magazine he outlined his vision for the future of the world wide web:

“I’ve got a vision for an alternative world, in which that data does exist, but it’s at the beck and call of the user themselves. Where the apps are actually separated from the data source. So when you use an app, it asks, where do you want me to store the data? And you have complete control over who gets access to it. It would be a new world. We’re talking about a future in which these programs work for you. They don’t work for Amazon, they don’t work for Apple.”

Tim Berners-Lee

And it could also be argued that the darker aspects of the web have come to the fore in recent years allowing democracy to be subverted and controlled, leading us to ask whether democracy is resistant to these attacks and fit for purpose in the fight against climate change

Whilst none of the impacts of the world wide web could have barely been envisaged over 30 years ago, one major damaging impact has yet largely gone unnoticed. This impact could undo decades of hard work and it is only set to increase exponentially – it’s the rapidly increasing, soaring carbon emissions of the fastest growing sector in the world.

The Environmental impact of the Internet

The internet is a master of innocence. The Cloud conjures up images of pure, seamless, clean technology at work, gracefully floating somewhere in the digital world: all encompassing, accessible, benevolent. 

The reality is very different. Huge, energy hungry datacentres, the size of small towns gobble up endless amounts of energy as tech giants compete for dominance in the ongoing struggle for views, like, subscriptions and advertising revenue. 

In a world that hasn’t yet fully embraced renewable energy generation, these data-centres pump more carbon into the atmosphere than the world’s entire aviation industry.

Every single time you press a button on a keyboard or select a service on a smartphone that action causes a ripple effect which cascades down through the system, sending little bits of electronic information around the world which eventually become stored on a physical computer: a hard-drive in one of billions upon billions of such drives towered high in shelving units that populate endless corridors within these inconspicuous data-centres. 

data centre carbon emissions

Yet the disconnected activities or the very connected world wide web mean that its difficult for individuals to understand the environmental impact of their online activities. In the same way that money shields us from the poor industrial practices and child labour used in the products we buy, the internet’s infrastruture as a far-removed service means it’s difficult for us to ascertain its energy consumption and impact.

When we fly to another country we clearly understand the implications and carbon emissions of that flight. We know that air-conditioning uses substantial amounts of energy and that cars are responsible for emitting significant amounts of carbon.  

But we do not take into account the never-ending stream of data that we both consume and create online. The photos, music, films, apps, calls, messages and emails that we exchange all have a carbon footprint. And because these things are all served up to us on a computer, smartphone or tablet, it’s impossible for us to perceive the vast data-centres that act as the engines, and emitters, spewing equally vast amounts of carbon into the air. 

This online world is powered by a vast infrastructure of real-world devices, computers and energy producing power-plants. And it’s only set to soar. 

The following infographic from a study On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology: Trends to 2030 shows the mssive increases that are set to happen over the next decade:

The Guardian has warned that the energy usage required to power this massive infrastructure could consume as much as one fifth of the world’s power supply. This would be a massive blow to the fight against climate change and is clearly something that needs to be addressed if our online activities, and their associated carbon emissions, are to be rapidly reduced in the face of global warming.

The role of renewables

The good news is that major corporations are making significant strides. Back in 2017 Google heralded this news, announcing  that in 2017 Google will reach 100% renewable energy for our global operations — including both our data-centres and offices. Google has stated:

Today, we are the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable power, with commitments reaching 2.6 gigawatts (2,600 megawatts) of wind and solar energy. That’s bigger than many large utilities and more than twice as much as the 1.21 gigawatts it took to send Marty McFly back in time.

Google Sustainability
wind turbines
wind turbines

And it makes business sense to power  via renewables. The costs of wind and solar have been reduced in recent years by up to 80%. As one of the largest operating costs of data-centres around the world it’s clear that reducing your electricity bill is a sensible way to operate. 

Google has even introduced an environmental website outlining its strategy to build sustainability into every aspect of their business. Whether their focus is on sustainability of the natural world, or sustainability of their business is another matter and it could be argued that the two are mutually exclusive.

But as much as we might think it is, Google is not the internet. Billions of sites are powered by data-centres that are not on Google servers and that means that up to 80% of the power used to serve up these sites is generated by the burning of dead dinosaurs. 

Can individuals reduce their online carbon footprint.

The short answer is yes!

The long answer depends on your online activities.

If you are a site owner, one of the best things you can do right now is to switch to renewable-powered site host, like Kualo which is advertised on Wild Blue Dot. 

Ask yourself, is your site powered by a data centre that uses fossil fuels to power its servers, air conditioning and building in general. Or is it using renewables. One of the simplest and most effective ways to ‘green’ the internet is to make the switch to a renewables hosting provider today. And one of the best renewables hosting providers online today is Kualo. You can start that change by clicking on the ad below.

Unlimited Web Hosting - Kualo

By taking out a renewables hosting plan you’ll be making a switch away from a hosting provider that burns fossil fuels to one that is powered by wind turbines and solar panels.

If, like most of us, you peruse the internet at your leisure than adopting some of the following practices can help you reduce your online carbon footprint.

  1. Delete emails you don’t need – every email is stored on a server somewhere which requires energy and air-conditioning to keep it at a temperate climate
  2. Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe – this works in the same manner as point 1 by simply reducing the amount of emails stored on servers
  3. Delete pics, apps, messages on your smartphone that you don’t need or use
  4. Clear up your cloud services – make sure that redundant photos, files e.t.c are deleted from your ‘cloud’ and curate your online, digital life
  5. Use your phone, instead of your computer where possible – a lower screen footprint means a lower carbon footprint

Greening the web

It’s essential that site owners, data-centres, online business and corporations start working together to green the internet. The Internet of Things will lead to an explosion in the number of connected devices all collecting and storing data, so with this ever increasing connectivity we need to have a renewably powered infrastructure that is up to the challenge.

The science is supporting this approach. Research has shown:

“In order to minimize the potentially negative influence of technological development on human and environment, it is necessary to successfully deal with challenges such as increased energy usage, waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and the consumption of natural and non-renewable raw materials. This is the reason for moving towards a greener future, where technology, IoT and the economy will be substituted with green technology, green IoT and the green economy, respectively, what implies a whole world of potentially remarkable improvements of human well-being and hence contributes to the sustainable smart world.”

Greening the web is as simple as switching from fossil fuel powered data-centres to renewable powered ones. And we can all support this drive by encouraging website owners, and if you own a site, by switching as soon as possible. 

The data for all websites lives on a physical computer located in a data-centre. This is the home of the site and, for a free, the site owner rents digital space on that computers hard drive or server.

Everytime you open a webpage a considerable amount of energy has been utilised in supporting that action. In 2016 it was claimed by the Berkeley Lab It Takes 70 Billion Kilowatt Hours A Year To Run The Internet.

So when someone refreshes a page on your site that request for information gets sent to the computer servers in the data-centre which then service the information back to the screen on which it is being read. 

If you have created a website the chances are that you selected your host based on online reviews, price, storage space and recommendations. 

But as the carbon emissions of the internet grow ever more conspicuous it’s time for all site owners to act. We have the ability to power our online platforms through affordable, effective but most importantly site hosts that are powered by renewable data centres. 

If everyone follows Google example, together we can green the internet and build an online world that supports the protection and preservation of the natural world.

Unlimited Web Hosting - Kualo