The Environmental Impact of Our Internet Habits

Our online activities and its related systems are responsible for 3.7 per cent of the global carbon emissions, almost 1.5 per cent more than the aviation industry.

Suyashi Smridhi | Patna

Premtosh Kar, a final year literature student at Hansraj College, remembers how he anticipated the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He flew down to Delhi from Kolkata two days before the first lockdown was announced in March 2020. “I saw it coming, but it was not very sudden for me,” Premtosh said.

By April 2020, more than 90 countries had imposed some kind of a lockdown (including quarantining, recommended confinements and curfews), according to an AFP database. Because of this, the world first shut down, and then moved online. For Premtosh, online classes began only in the second half of 2020, after a whole semester was disrupted.

Increase in Internet Usage due to COVID lockdowns

Data reveals that there was a 70 per cent increase in the use of smartphones and a 40 per cent increase in the use of laptops throughout the world as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. With everything shifting online, the dependence on the internet also increased.

According to the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, the increase in mobile internet usage in India was particularly high. In India, the average traffic per smartphone user increased to 15.7 GB per month in 2020 from 13.5 GB per month in 2019. Meanwhile, the global average hovers around  9.4 GB for 2020. 

The Possibility of a Healthier Environment

As the world struggled to cope with COVID-19, there appeared to be a silver lining. In the early days of the lockdown, images showing better air quality around the world began circulating.

But Premtosh is wary of such ‘silver linings’. “Our environment is already pretty much hurt. It’s not like just because for a single year the carbon emission is down, the world will come back to normal…Having things done online doesn’t necessarily mean that the environment will be better.”

According to the Global Carbon Project, April 2020 witnessed a drastic decrease of 17 per cent in carbon emissions. By June 2020, the decrease in carbon emissions was only five per cent, despite the fact that normal activity hadn’t fully restarted. 

How the Internet impacts the environment

While the internet is intangible, it is not something that operates independent of devices. An infographic on Climate Care explains that the internet can affect the environment indirectly in many ways. 

Manufacturing and shipping of internet hardware like computers, smartphones and servers uses a lot of energy. Once in use, these devices also need electricity to run. 

Searching information on the internet results in the emission of greenhouse gases. This happens because each search requires multiple servers, before the information is finally collated for the user. These servers are located in data centres around the world. Connected via kilometres of undersea cables, data centres need energy to power servers and routers. 

A single search or an email may not seem damaging. However, 4.1 billion or 53.6 per cent of the world population is now using the internet in various ways – for searching information, for scrolling through social media, for attending online meetings and classes etc.

Our online activities and its related systems are responsible for 3.7 per cent of the global carbon emissions, almost 1.5 per cent more than the aviation industry.

Source: The Shift Project and Our World In Data

Emailing

As an Editor for Eupheus Learning, a publishing firm, Neeraj V Murali is required to send around 10-15 emails a day to his Reporting Manager. 

Till the first week of April, Neeraj was commuting from his home in Greater Noida to his office in Sarita Vihar, New Delhi, a cab ride which took around 80 minutes one way. Neeraj estimates that if he was working from office, the number of emails he would have had to send would be slashed by two-thirds. 

Neeraj’s emails usually have updates or questions for the Manager. Sometimes, they also include documents as attachments, depending on his workload. While emailing may be better for the environment than commuting to office, they still have an environmental cost.

Source: How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything

Social Media Consumption

As a BBA student at Brihan Maharashtra College of Commerce and a social media intern for a well-established marketing agency, most of Neha Ramachandani’s day unfolds online. If she isn’t attending classes on Microsoft Teams, she is writing copies and scripts for her internship.

To pass time, Neha spends around three hours daily scrolling through Instagram. On her day off, Neha spends another hour or two on Instagram. Compared to 2019, social media activity has increased in 2020.

According to Greenspector, scrolling for a minute on Tik Tok, Reddit, Pinterest and Snapchat can result in an above average impact of 2.1 grams of carbon emissions, with Tik Tok releasing carbon emissions close to five grams. This is because Tik Tok exclusively deals with loading and watching video content.

Source: Greenspector and Visual Capitalist

Scrolling on Instagram and twitter for a minute releases close to 2 grams of carbon emissions. In comparison, Facebook is the most friendly, releasing 0.73 grams of CO2.

There is no cohesive study available yet on the carbon emissions of instant messaging.

Online Video Content

Since the pandemic began, Astha Mehrotra’s online consumption of movies has increased. She now spends three-four hours daily watching something online. 

Instead of surfing through different OTT platforms for content, she prefers to search for a film she wants to watch. Since Astha doesn’t have a subscription of popular OTT platforms like Netflix and Prime Video, she tries to access movies on Youtube. It is estimated that Youtube’s annual carbon footprint is 11.3 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (a standard unit of measure to calculate carbon footprint).

A report by the French think-tank The Shift Project states that video content accounts for 60 per cent of internet traffic, generating 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

Source: The Shift Project 2019

Video content requires energy on two fronts: to power devices that are used for watching online content and to power servers and networks that host the content. While The Shift Project’s report claimed that watching Netflix for 30 minutes results in 1.6 kilograms of carbon emissions, a recent fact-check by the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that streaming Netflix would lead to 18 grams of carbon emissions.

The IEA, while revealing that the carbon footprint of streaming video is modest, warns of the increasing viewership of video content and thus an increase in overall environmental impact.

Video Conferencing

As an employee for a pharma consulting company, Manvi Jha has various meetings to attend throughout the day. Using Zoom, Manvi attends in-house meetings four-five times a day. Together, these meetings average around three hours a day.

Manvi is also required to attend meetings with her clients at least once a day, averaging around one-two hours a day. While switching on the video is not compulsory, it is considered a good practice to keep the video on during client interactions.

A study conducted by Yale, MIT and Purdue revealed that an hour long video-conferencing call can emit a kilogram of carbon dioxide and use about 12 litres of water. The study also noted that switching off video can cut the carbon emissions by 96 per cent. 

Source: The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing Internet use

According to a paper titled, Comparison of the energy, carbon and time costs of videoconferencing and in-person meetings, “videoconferencing currently takes at most 7% of the energy/carbon of an in-person meeting, and this economy of videoconferencing in terms of energy/carbon cost is likely to persist into the future.”

 The paper evaluated both the direct and indirect energy requirements of online and offline meetings,  from manufacturing to transport infrastructure (for in-person meetings) to network infrastructure (for online meetings).

Online Shopping 

For Saloni Kumar, online shopping has been a boon during the pandemic. She usually purchases saree,books and cosmetics, once every two-three months. While Saloni prefers ordering books on amazon, she buys sarees and cosmetics depending on the websites and products she likes. 

In 2020, online retail of products offered by the fashion industry was the highest, followed by the electronic industry. 

While there is no cohesive  study that calculates the environmental impact of online shopping in India, there are certain indicators offered by international reports that can be helpful in understanding how online shopping contributes to the environment.

 

Source: SimilarWeb

The 2020 Report on the Environmental Impact of E-Commerce suggests that deliveries of fashion items can have a negative impact on the environment because of high rates of return. “The consequences to the environment of returns is that they involve double transportation and may require disposal rather than resale,” the report says.

Another report in Environmental Science and Technology suggests that buying essential items in a brick and mortar store is better than ordering online since consumers are more likely to buy items in bulk while shopping in person. This reduces the environmental impact of transportation and packaging when one buys only a few items online.

Food Deliveries

While Saloni herself doesn’t order food from outside, her children do when they come to visit. Her children order food at least thrice a week on their visit every three-four months. 

According to the report, Online Food Delivery Market in India 2020 ,  “online food delivery market in India is expected to expand at compound annual growth rates of 30.55 per cent(based on revenue, and 10.19 per cent (based on the number of users) during the 2020-2024 period.” The report estimates that this growth will generate a revenue of  Rs. 1,334.99 billion. Major players include Zomato, Swiggy, Freshmenu and Faasos.

On its order page, Zomato has recently added a ‘climate conscious delivery’ section. The section informs that zomato’s carbon footprint is 600-800 tonnes a day, generated because of packaging and transportation

To offset this, Zomato invests in wind energy projects in Maharashtra. The page also informs that 20 per cent of Zomato deliveries are made via a cycle. In 2018, Zomato had also introduced the option of “no-cutlery”, allowing users to do away with plastic cutlery. It is unclear how these measures have really helped in checking Zomato’s per day emissions.

In 2018, Swiggy launched Swiggy Packing Assist that aimed to do-away with plastic packaging. Now known as StaplePlus, Swiggy offers assistance to its restaurant partners in procuring packaging material and raw materials like dairy, fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and poultry etc. However, it is unclear how many restaurants avail of StaplePlus and how eco-friendly packaging material really is.