A new study says that despite a record drop in global carbon emissions in 2020, a pandemic-driven shift to remote work and more at-home entertainment still presents significant environmental impact due to how internet data is stored and transferred around the world.
Just one hour of videoconferencing or streaming, for example, emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide (a gallon of gasoline burned from a car emits about 8,887 grams), requires 2-12 litres of water and demands a land area adding up to about the size of an iPad Mini.
But leaving your camera off during a web call can reduce these footprints by 96%. Streaming content in standard definition rather than in high definition while using apps such as Netflix or Hulu also could bring an 86% reduction, the researchers estimated.
A number of countries have reported at least a 20% increase in internet traffic since March. If the trend continues through the end of 2021, this increased internet use alone would require a forest of about 71,600 square miles -- twice the land area of Indiana -- to sequester the emitted carbon, the study found.
The additional water needed in the processing and transmission of data would also be enough to fill more than 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, while the resulting land footprint would be about equal to the size of Los Angeles.
The research team estimated the carbon, water and land footprints associated with each gigabyte of data used in YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and 12 other platforms, as well as in online gaming and miscellaneous web surfing. As expected, the more video used in an application, the larger the footprints.
Because data processing uses a lot of electricity, and any production of electricity has carbon, water and land footprints, reducing data download reduces environmental damage.
According to the researchers, the internet's carbon footprint had already been increasing before COVID-19 lockdowns, accounting for about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But the water and land footprints of internet infrastructure have largely been overlooked in studies of how internet use impacts the environment.
Processing and transmitting internet data in the U.S., the researchers found, has a carbon footprint that is 9% higher than the world median, but water and land footprints that are 45% and 58% lower, respectively.
Incorporating the water and land footprints of internet infrastructure painted a surprising picture for a few countries. Even though Germany, a world renewable energy leader, has a carbon footprint well below the world median, its water and land footprints are much higher. The country's energy production land footprint, for example, is 204% above the median, the researchers calculated.
Source: Purdue University