The impact of digital on the environment, or when the planet heats up in a click

With more than 4.79 billion users in the world, the Internet has become an essential tool of our daily lives. Thanks to the digital world, information is widespread, remote areas and people are connected to the rest of the world, ideas circulate faster… Even though the digital area appears mostly intangible, its pollution is very much tangible and its effects are more and more visible. Digital pollution includes all sources of environmental pollution produced by numeric tools, from their fabrication to their daily use and their end of life. According to the think tank “The Shift Project”, in 2021, digital pollution is responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Internet in a few numbers 

At a global level, the internet is extremely present with a high number of equipment, installations and devices: 

  • 45 million servers
  • 800 million network equipment (routers, ADSL boxes…)
  • 15 billion connected objects in 2018 and 46 billion expected in 2030
  • 10 billions of mobile phones sold in the world since 2007 

The use of the internet has rapidly increased. On average, a person spends 6 hours per day on the internet. In 1 hour:

  • 8 to 10 billion emails are exchanged (excluding spam)
  • 180 million Google searches are made 

Causes of digital pollution 

The main sources of impact of digital pollution are the following ones: 

  • Producing devices and equipment 
  • Electricity consumption of equipments 
  • Electric consumption of network 
  • Electric consumption of  data centres 

To begin with, the production process of digital equipment is highly polluting. The more the devices are little and complex, the more they have a heavy impact on the environment. The production of complex elements requires scarce metals like tantalum (smartphones) or indium (LCD). Their extraction and the transformation of raw materials pollute a lot, because they use energy from largely non renewable sources. Greenpeace reports indicate that extraction is responsible for environmental scandals. In the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the extraction of resources finances the civil war. Extraction also causes the release of toxic particles into the air, water and soil. The transportation of materials and devices is also responsible for pollution. 

Second, the electric consumption of devices and data centres is rapidly increasing. According to the Shift Project 2019, the digital’s electric consumption rises about 9% per year. Data centers require a high energy consumption to keep the data. They also require energy to cool the centres because of their huge heat production. Data centres are responsible for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions of the digital sector. 

The daily use of the Internet is responsible for 16% of the pollution. The most energy-intensive source is the online videos. They represent 60% of the world data stream which is equivalent to 1% of the greenhouse gases emissions. 

Finally, the last step of the product-life cycle is recycling. 75% of electronic waste escapes legal recycling channels. In China, India or Africa, huge open dumps like the one in Agbogbloshie, Ghana often receive illegal electronic waste. In the European Union, less than 40% of electronic waste is recycled. 

If the digital sector still creates 2.5 less emissions than the transport sector, or 3 times less emissions than deforestation, we must be aware of digital pollution… Here are some tips to reduce our own digital pollution!

How to reduce the impact of digital on the environment 

Concerning your equipment, you should favour long-lasting equipment over brand new equipment, changed every year. In case of breakage, why not try to repair it? You can also turn towards refurbished appliances. When purchasing a new device, you can rely on some labels to guide you: der Blaue Engel, EPEAT or TCO for example are reliable labels. 

About the data pollution, do not forget to clean your cloud! Keep only what is really useful and, if possible, try to store your data locally (on a hard disk for example).

306.4 billion emails are sent every day in the world. They also are very polluting. Regularly cleaning your mailbox (thanks to tools like Cleanfox, for example) will reduce the amount of unuseful data stored on the cloud. When answering somebody’s email, think about deleting attached files. Another idea to share files is to use temporary deposit sites (like WeTransfer)! You can also reduce the number of correspondents  and unsubscribe to mailing lists. You can impair your emissions by reducing the number of Google searches: bookmark your most visited websites and when you do a research, try to choose the most appropriate keyword in order to reduce your number of clicks. For online videos, deactivate automatic reading. You will save energy and time! 

Finally, a new type of web hosting is currently developing: sustainable web hosting, powered by 100% renewable energy. One pionnier is Infomaniak. To get more information about them:  

To conclude, we must be aware of digital pollution, which is dramatically increasing. A lot of tips can help us reduce our own energy consumption. However, the internet is an incredible wealth: to what extent is a responsible use of information on the internet linked to sustainable behaviour? 

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