The Internet Impacts the Environment More than You Realize

By Ryan Johnston

Connecting every household to high-speed, reliable, broadband has been the goal of federal agencies, funding programs, and a myriad of others for years. Universal connectivity allows seniors to age in place, children to learn from home, and parents to work remotely, among countless other important uses. 

One thing about the Internet that is frequently forgotten is how our connectivity impacts the environment. When we consider connectivity, whether or not the connection works is a primary concern. Oftentimes we don’t think about all the network elements that relay broadband from backbone infrastructure into our homes. 

The electricity required to run cellular towers, data centers, and computers in addition to recharging our phones and laptops accounts for almost 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. For example, it is estimated that a regular text-only email produces up to 4 grams of CO2, and an email with a large attachment produces up to 50. The energy needed to run your computer to the multitude of servers that instantaneously receive and pass on the email continually usurp power. 

Similarly, one hour of streaming or video conferencing can emit between 150 and 1000 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere depending on the service. Streaming also requires one half to three gallons of water for cooling equipment and the use of land area the size of an iPad Mini for data storage. What might potentially be the most shocking statistic is that the United States broadband infrastructure consumes roughly 1% of the global energy demand, this is higher than 55 other countries

There are three immediate ways that providers, states, localities, and individuals can reduce the carbon footprint related to Internet use. Investing in fiber can contribute to cleaner infrastructure. The materials required for fiber construction are found abundantly without necessitating mining operations. Investing in copper wires is not only inefficient for data transmission, but also requires the element to be mined causing increased carbon generation.

Communities can also ensure that they have e-waste procedures in place. Recycling and refurbishing devices can take them out of landfills where salvageable devices can degrade. 

Finally, when online, reducing video quality for streaming can decrease the generated carbon footprint.  

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