The Internet’s data centers alone may already have the same CO2 footprint as global air travel. The good news is that many major Internet companies are becoming more energy conscious, and choosing more renewable sources of power for data centers and operations.

The more emails we send and archive, television and music we stream, and Google Docs we edit – the more devices, servers, and antennas are needed to satisfy our growing and seemingly limitless hunger for data. The Internet improves the energy efficiency of a lot of non-digital industries. But we are connecting so many people and objects now that by some predictions, global communication technologies will be responsible for more carbon emissions in 2025 than any country except China, India and the United States.

Sustainability should be a bigger priority, especially as the Internet expands into new territory. Cryptocurrency mining is very energy intensive (could it be as much electricity as Ireland uses?) and has taken on industrial proportions in countries where there is cheap electricity and political favor.

A common convenience like switching lights on by speaking to a digital assistant creates a chain of reactions beyond your home, from one data center to another, as information travels back and forth. We rarely consider there is an energy expenditure beyond what shows up on our own bills for electricity and mobile data. Less surprising is that hardware production requires a lot of energy (so many phones and devices) even if it is easier not to think of the blights of e-waste whenever we buy a new gadget.

Greenpeace grades for green energy policies of technology companies


Data source: The share of ICT of global electricity usage: 2015 to 2025 with and without high global energy efficiency gains, Total Consumer Power Consumption Forecast, Dr. Anders S.G. Andrae (Huawei), October 2017

Greenpeace’s report, Click Clean, assesses the energy policies of major Internet companies – including how many of their data centers are powered by renewable energy. In 2017, Apple, Google and Facebook earned the highest grades, while Chinese giants Tencent and Baidu ranked lowest.

“We see a real race emerging to build an internet that is 100% renewably powered by a range of companies,” wrote Gary Cook of Greenpeace last year, singling out Netflix, a video streaming service with more than 90 million subscribers, in a campaign for the company to go green. Such efforts spur change.

We can’t ignore the environmental toll of the Internet on the planet. We can design websites more sustainably and seek out green web hosts. We can urge the tech sector to be as innovative on clean energy as they are in other fields. And in broadband Internet policies, especially where electricity is scarce, governments can prioritize renewable and off-grid electricity much more than they do now.

Predicted growth in global share of electricity use by communication technologies


Data source: Click Clean, Greenpeace, 2017