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The Unseen Environmental Impact of the Internet

2022-05-042 min readDevelopment

I'm writing this while looking out my office window at a broad, white horizon in British Columbia, Canada. The trees and buildings nearest to me look faded. Those further away are dull silhouettes. Far in the distance, the sky is flat and white and mountainless, smoke obscuring our brown, baked hillsides. Beyond that, in every direction, is fire.

To say that the climate crisis weighs on me would be an understatement. The wolf is at our door. We cannot ignore it any longer or decline to take action against it.

In the digital era, our consumption can feel inconsequential. A streaming video comes with no wasteful packaging. A web page need not be biodegradable. But the internet does leave a footprint on our world. Real resources are expended to deliver those cat GIFs.

In fact, a 2018 McMaster University study revealed that 1.5% of global carbon emissions can be attributed to information and communications technology (ICT). As internet usage rapidly increases worldwide, this figure will balloon. By 2040, they predict, ICT will account for 14% of global emissions, equal to about half of all transit-related emissions.

Think of the process involved to send a single email. Information must travel via physical infrastructure from one electronic device to another, making stops at various servers along the way. Backups and redundancies require still more servers, more infrastructure. All of this requires electricity, and too much of that energy is dirty. The internet is almost miraculous in its complexity and power. It comes at a cost.

Web developers are used to measuring their projects in many ways. Lines of code, requests per page, filesize, load speed. What about carbon footprint?

It might seem inconsequential but think of the scale. A single inefficient web page may waste a few seconds of resources each time it's requested. Milligrams of wasteful carbon multiplied by thousands, even millions of users per month. The top 100 most popular websites combine for 7.3 billion views per month. There are over 1 billion active websites online right now.

We can't all stop what we're doing to plant trees and live simple lives in nature (don't tempt me), but we can all incorporate good environmental practice in our work, whatever that work may be. Even when our impact seems small, remote, and far away, it all adds up. Trust me.

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