What’s the carbon footprint of … the internet?

  • The internet releases around 300m tonnes of CO2 a year – as much as all the coal, oil and gas burned in Turkey or Poland, or more than half of the fossil fuels burned in the UK
  • The carbon footprint of the internet: Around 300 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to every person in the UK flying to America and back twice over.

All carbon footprints are hard or impossible to pin down accurately, but the internet is a particularly complex case. This isn’t just due to the fact that the “net” consists of millions or even billions of machines owned by countless people and companies. There’s also another problem: even if we knew exactly how much energy all these devices consumed (which we don’t), we still wouldn’t know how much of that energy was spent on offline jobs (such as creating documents in Microsoft Office) and how much was spent on online jobs (such as emailing those documents to a friend or colleague).It’s possible, nonetheless, to take a rough stab at working out the internet’s carbon footprint. A good place to start is the world’s data centres – buildings packed top to bottom with servers full of the web pages, databases, online applications and downloadable files that make the modern online experience possible. Data centres use lots of electricity, both for powering the machines they contain and – all importantly – for the air conditioning needed to keep the servers from overheating.

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