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Internet and Climate Impact: Friend or Foe?

Is the Internet a Friend or Foe to Our Climate?

Living in the digital age, I bet you often ponder if the internet is an ally or adversary for our climate. I mean, who doesn’t right? A recent Swedish study tried to tackle this tricky question, and the results are a vivid display of the confusion that prevails among Swedes.

Digitalization: Are We Killing Our Planet?

The Internet Foundation’s annual survey “Swedes and the Internet”, with a touch of ‘sleep-inducing’ sustainability perspective, asked Swedes what they thought about the climate impact of the internet and digitalization. Quite a tough question for us average joes, as shown by the survey results.

A third believe that digitalization has a predominantly positive climate impact while a quarter of Swedes admit to having ‘no idea’.

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Results reveal an interesting disparity among respondents, with men born in the 1980s most convinced that digitalization is good for the climate. You may leave this text thinking I’m positively biased towards the internet, blame it on my ’80s birthdate. The youngest participants, however, seem convinced that our world wide web could spell doom for our planet.

A Web of Debates on Net Emissions

No stranger is the public eye, the debate on internet emissions keeps reincarnating. Remember the infamous claim by French thinktank Shift Project stating watching a half-an-hour Netflix episode is equivalent to a 6.5km car ride?

Not without controversy, Swedish researcher Anders Andrae’s study predicted, some years back, that digitalization would devour a fifth of all electricity by 2025. A golden club often waved in debates by politicians, researchers, and journalists, his forecast seems less plausible now unless we witness radical changes in the next few years. The International Energy Agency (IEA) paints a less dramatic picture of the threat posed by the internet.

The Fast and The Energy Savers

Since 2015, global internet traffic has sextupled while the energy consumption for data centers and network technology (part of the driving force behind the internet) rose by 19-67% between 420 TWh to 500-700 TWh annually. Crypto mining is a notable exclusion from these stats, chomping up 100-150 TWh last year according to the IEA.

The IT industry’s weapon in fighting catastrophic climate scenarios is their rapidly increasing energy efficiency. Thanks to something called “Moore’s Law,” named after Intel’s founder Gordon E. Moore, computing power in modern machines doubles approximately every two years. Coupled with “Koomey’s Law,” which states processing power per joule doubles roughly every 1.5 years, the IT industry has effectively evaded major climate damage. Though certainly not just out of love for Mother Nature, lower energy consumption implies cheaper operations and longer battery lives.

Crunching the Numbers

Looking at the figures from IEA, electricity consumption from data centers and networks is 2-3% of global electricity consumption. Despite being smaller than one might think, it’s a significant digit. As the IT industry is quite fond of investing in green energy, the carbon footprint left behind is roughly 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions—about half of what the world’s paper industry emits nonetheless.

This doesn’t mean that the internet and increased digitalization are unequivocally positive from a climate perspective. It is a sector that consumes energy and natural resources, though gains can be pointed out from video meetings replacing flights to PDFs taking over printouts’ role. Balancing these positives against emissions from producing billions of mobile phones is a complicated equation.

The future energy consumption of digitalization is uncertain, as emerging technologies may lead to increased emissions. Increased use of artificial intelligence, a more connected industry, and a potential metaverse could boost computer power needs. If these demands are not met with investments in energy efficiency and sustainable energy, they may well result in increased emissions.

So next time someone asks if you think digitization is good for the climate, like 23% of Swedes in this intriguing survey, a response of “no idea” might not be far from the truth.

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